Sunday, June 30, 2013


The Future is Fluid Form:  Practical Steps for Designing Flat, Flexible Organizations” by Ord Elliott interested me greatly because I met Ord at PNWD-UU Leadership School, a phenomenon devised by the Rev. Peter Raible, Rod Stewart, and himself with the support and help of the Rev. Alan Deale and a few others.  That was in the Seventies -- forty years ago -- so many of the vivid characters are either dead, retired, or (alas) disgraced.  Still, it was a thought exercise and intense experience that has stayed with me.  At the time it was strong enough to carry me into the UU ministry -- and then on out the other side, which I didn’t understand.  What happened?  I’m just going to quote directly from Ord’s book:

“The recipe for their cultural stew included liberal social action with protestant tradition plus a sprinkle of Zen Buddhism and an appreciation of other world religions.  Despite their openness to different religious persepctives, their world view was not particularly open to anyone who did not share their own. . . 

“Truth be told, I liked their rebellious edge -- it smacked of the spirit behind that famous bumper sticker, “Question Authority.”  They harbored an undercurrent of distrust of hierarchy or organization that might emit the smallest trace of infringing on individual rights or of oppressing any disadvantaged group.”

Ord worked with us and over the week of the school, through struggling with tasks, sharing stories, and making discoveries -- all much assisted by that powerful drug “fatigue” -- we all felt that our “network of regions that managed collaboratively with little or no hierachy at all” was validated.  It was a gorgeous location on the Pacific Coast (Fort Worden, WA) where our tendency towards nature mysticism tipped us over into ecstasy.

The reputation of the school was good enough that Ord was invited to work with the “top” that wasn’t supposed to exist, the Boston-based circle of powerful ministers and a few equally powerful laypeople.  They looked down on him as a “suit,” which he understood, but after his exercises and diagrams, which they only tolerated, they insisted on breaking into their regular ongoing committees.

“Reluctantly, I cross over into what turned out to be the secret of their organization, the power source of the whole shebang.  . . “The Committee on Committees.”  “It’s sole function was to name committees and assign members to them. . .They acted as if they had the authority of a high level executive team, but they did not plan, set direction, or promulgate initiatives.  There was no adjudication of differences, no identification and prioritization of issues, no interventions into the workings of other committees. . .  it was, by design, hosting endless conversations about issues without ever taking action. . . confirming to themselves that conversation about what to do is a more elegant way of being in community than the actual doing itself.”

Wow.  Name the dragon.  I did a little workshop in my Saskatoon congregation, which at that point was a collection of committees and special interests (including me, who discovered that no one but me was interested in aborigines).  The goal was to write a mission statement but because like so many small U (the Canadian Universalists refused to merge with the Unitarians) congregations, they were a collection of liberal oddballs held together by their negative opinion of the majority world. “Mission mist” helped them coexist in their usual mode as an aggregation of porcupines.  Finally Ann Coxworth (who always reminded me of Jane Goodall) suggested the phrase:  “to receive the universe gratefully and return what we can as well as we can.”  (Something like that.)  Quickly I printed it out on the newsprint and declared it the winner.  End of session.  The resentment that ensued was part of the reason I left.  Poor Ann had to stay.

The original formation of the Unitarians and Universalists was under stigma pressure from the larger Calvinist community but also in those beginning years there had been a cultural shift that provided a rallying point:  Asian transcendentalist and scientific rationalist ideas about a welling-up sacrality in the world: Emerson’s Oversoul. As pressure from the world lessened and the central understanding weakened, mission drift began.  By the time I entered ministry, the mission was simply to get bigger and raise more money as a matter of competition with other denominations and social status.  

The rational scientists began to chafe against the “emotional” spirituality, the social action people resented all that prayer, the liberal congregations broke open on the rocks of Black racism and anti-Vietnam peace, and the only goal in common -- as so often happens -- was simply preserving the institution, meaning all the jobs and the status quo.  The cruelest irony was all the innocent and vulnerable people who had thought they could avoid the world by becoming ministers and then discovered the world-in-spades in the board room, the Committee on Committees: worse, the Fellowship Committee.

Ord uses as his chapter headings quotes from “Comanches: The Destruction of a People” by T. R. Fehrenbach (1974).  I don’t know much about Comanche but I know a LOT about Blackfeet.  Fehrenbach is a historian and a military man, so he’s talking about the basic mechanisms of war among horse-mounted plains people, which were largely the strategies of guerrillas.  There are more than a few these days who find guerrilla strategy the only way to get things done, even if the mission is supposed to be doing good or locating the sacred.  Whether a guerrilla group is seen as terrorist or not depends on the point of view.  Guerrilla strategies arise out of a common mission and are as “flexible and flat --” to use Ord’s terms -- as any organization can get.  It is the opposite of an institution.  Once something is institutionalized, it has to have a “committee on committees” and the honest way to do that is to admit that it’s a control center which imposes hierarchy.

I don’t know about the Comanche, as I said, but the Blackfeet Tribal Council, which is deliberately and officially styled as the Board of Directors of a corporation, cannot even hold itself together, much less the tribe.  Bureaucracy paralysis abounds.  Even so, the clueless outsiders arrive and are soon converted into horses ridden by guerrillas demanding guns.  Some are religionists, many are educators, too many have a military interest disguised as citizen law-and-order (they looooove Homeland Security), and the money-suckers never left.  

At the same time guerrilla action goes on.  My fav example is the woman seeing the street people slumped along the alley fence, going home to make a kettle of soup and bringing it to feed them.  Every bureaucratic intervention, including the shelter, had failed.  (It was there -- they just didn’t like it.)  The impulse is still in hearts and the original mission of community in order to survive is still there.  Those "street people" actually help each other.

What is not there is the original mission of the reservation and the reason for it which was the attempted genocide of a people whom some thought the rez would save and others thought the rez would destroy.  It has done both, shattering what was once a remnant population of 500 or so into an 8,000 person complex of communities and an 8,000 person diaspora.  The culture no longer exists, but then, neither does the culture that created the rez.  Our whole nation is shattered into a complex with no mission statement except to survive as an institution, no unifying force but greed and starting wars, which is the same thing.

Saturday, June 29, 2013


My Netflix queue has two sides, one for mailed discs and the other for streaming.  The streaming ones seem to have a separate distribution algorithm but I’m not exactly sure what it is.  There might be several.  I have my own algorithm and one is following actors I admire, so I streamed “The Hunter” because of Willem Dafoe   Also, I admire Sam Neill.  I only knew Frances O’Connor as an actress with a face like a Valentine.  Add that it’s an Aussie movie and that it won a prize at the Toronto Film Festival, which I value more than others.  But I wasn’t looking for an enviro film.

I was only marginally aware of Tasmanian tigers and even less so Tasmanian devils -- in fact, I confused the two.  Both are evolutionary side tracks in which marsupials became the equivalent of mammals on other continents, more like hyenas and wolverines than tigers or bears because those were the niches they claimed and those were the characteristics that let them survive there. 

Tasmanian Tigers  AKA Thylacines  1908

Tasmanian Devil  present

They are only part of what makes movies “down under” seem so mysterious and yet familiar -- people say “mystic.”   Almost sci-fi. Philosophical enviro films love landscape, especially the gentler films, which also love sex.  It’s unusual for them to be about hard-man hunters or to combine that with brilliant clear-eyed children like Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock).  From now on I’ll follow Julia Leigh, the writer of the originating novel.  Check out the reviews on, esp. the ones from Aussies.

This remarkable film fits with my enviro preoccupation here in my own mystic landscape full of guarded people, which I survive in part by watching TED talks.  I even subscribe.  The next day after I streamed “The Hunter,” the Ted Talk subscription sent michael_archer_how_we_ll_resurrect_the_gastric_brooding_frog_the_tasmanian_tiger.html   There I found the source material for the image of the thylacine, brought back to life in the movie by CGI.  Some swipes at YouTube yielded many clips about the Tasmanian devils and even the prototype for the Sam Neill character, a man who remembered living thylacines (Tasmanian tigers’ proper name).

Stewart Brand added his pitch at:  He has founded a study group called “Revive & Restore” which is part of his umbrella institution: “The Long Now.”   The thylacine is a remnant that some believe may still be there somehow.  Aurochs are an early kind of cattle (pictured in cave art) close enough to its descendant that it can be recovered by backbreeding (inbreeding).  Condors were brought back by capture and hand-raising.  Woolly mammoths are found frozen -- lots of DNA.  And then there are the dinosaurs. . . 

There are many ways of bringing back the animals of the past, even the people of the past (Neanderthals), but in the background is always the question of bringing back the environment.  (There are businesses that restore streams, even if they’ve been running for a century underground in culverts, “daylighting” them.)  Is an animal itself unless it is interacting with the environment that gave rise to it?   Isn’t it behavior as much as anatomy?   And now we realize that the whole planet has changed, will change, in part because of ourselves.  Is a human a human being if it’s not on the planet Earth?  Could a Neanderthal ride the subway or conduct an orchestra?  (Yes.  But not well.)

So everything is code and we can both read it and create it.  (But not well.)  When I say EVERYTHING is code, I shark-jump God.  God IS the code.  You can dress it up by talking about a goddess’ net or “process theology.”  It’s still just energy code, masquerading as solid objects -- change that somehow seems stable, full of moments because our brains code it that way.  Humans don’t have soul -- they have awareness.  (But not well.)

When I first started reading enviro stuff it was about the land.  One biologist talked about people imprinting with whatever landscape they knew the best, so then that became their idea of what any movement should restore.  She was frustrated because some people had come from back East and knew the Flathead Valley only as it was with the current infestation of spotted knapweed, which covered everything with a purple haze and killed everything that competed.  The newcomers saw that as beautiful and didn’t want to exterminate it.  MANY range weeds are recent invaders.  

In 1990 I picked a “bouquet” at Heart Butte (a remote place in the foothills of the east slope of the Rockies) in order to get the kids to write about them.  After looking each plant up in my handbook, it became clear that we were living in a degraded place.  They’ll scream at the word but de- just means “subtracted” so the word just means it’s below -- less than -- grade A compared to the original foothills grazing.  Until then, I had not been critical of lupine and other bright elegant plants that came from elsewhere.

Brand does not neglect the moral and practical issues of bringing back lost species.  How does one judge “code,” why isn’t it just a matter of imposing our own preferences on the world, and what do we do when some want it the way it is now while others will fight to restore us to 1800 or 1491 or before the retreat of the glaciers ten thousand years ago.  If we’re going to mess around in such matters -- oh, we already are -- the consequences may be quite unlike anything we intend.  Haven't been in the past.

So now we’re on religious ground and the shift is so very deep that most people will not be able to grasp it.  The core of this “religion” is still about survival, both survival of the group and the survival of the individual, but it does not mean access to a perfect place with so much bliss that it may amount to non-feeling, no friction.  It means survival through participation, through consciousness of the fractal swirl that surges on all sides, including the inside.  Not so different from what some people mean when they say “God is in you/you are in God.”  In our times too many people feel that they cannot survive except by NOT participating.  They make themselves like hardened spores that drift through space, hitchhiking on asteroids.

What do I mean by participation?  First of all, it is openness to the senses.  Second, it means an awareness of pattern.  Third, it means being open-handed, open-hearted, letting the process go on with as little ego-interference as possible.  The courage necessary to do this is enormous, not least because to do so can mean going against the entire Western cultural juggernaut, except for the educated sub-culture that has been looking at the evidence.  There are corollaries:  be where you are; smell the roses; take your neighbor’s hand; respect your lover’s body; doubt everything, doubt nothing.

What surprised me about “The Hunter,” the movie, was it’s tenderness.  It’s very much aligned with this sacred approach to life: participation, being where you are, taking your neighbor’s hand and so on.  Dafoe’s character, used to luxury hotels, accepts the hippie/dippie context he has fallen into, repairs the generator, scrubs out the disgusting tub, washes the drugged mother with the help of her children, relates to those children with respect and intelligence, restores music to the trees, and walks the land as part of it.  None of this is preachy.  But he survives.  Alone.  But wait -- maybe not.

Giant worms that smell like lilies aren't quite Tasmanian Tigers, but the principle was the same.)

Friday, June 28, 2013


Ord Elliott was one of the mighty leaders at the PNWD UU Leadership School I attended in the Seventies, a strong factor in my becoming a minister for a decade.  In the school setting, which was intense and transformative, he never said ANYTHING about his years as a Marine in Vietnam.  Now comes this book with the ironic title “The Warrior’s Silence”-- ironic because it is testimony. 

In fact, it’s nearly a bill of indictment against those who forced the Marines to use the shoddy M16 that regularly jammed in a way that could only be unjammed by forcing a cleaning rod down the barrel, so that the soldiers were found over and over with their ramrods in their guns and a bullet in their heads.  Repeatedly Ord saw his men shot because they were using the equivalent of 19th century ball-and-powder guns in the face of modern dependable weaponry.  He feels that this was ONLY because of the power of General Westmoreland who had endorsed the new guns and would not back off from that, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he was wrong.  In short, the General was also using a 19th century mind-set that leaders must never be seen as wrong.  

This is not a young man’s book.  It is not passionate and emotional; the writing is almost like a police report in its insistence on facts, and the constant death, rot, and life-threatening thirst, is simply noted.  There’s no anthropological account of the locals or the enemy.  Terrain and strategy are the focus.

Ord is one of three Vietnam veterans who write and who sometimes correspond with me.  Davidson Loehr ( was a classmate at Meadville/Lombard, the UU seminary, the only student my age (40).  He came in under the protection of a powerful minister and was able to bring his entire woodshop with him, which he set up in one of the basements.  Incredibly gifted as a singer, a fine carpenter, and a host of other skills, he was defiant and iconoclastic in many ways but sentimental and craving prestige.  If he found an authority figure he could trust, he was on fire with enthusiasm.  (Langdon Gilkey and Martin Marty filled the bill.  So did Westmoreland.)  If not, he was intolerable and M/L threw him out.  He simply transferred to the U of C Div School directly since he had the scores to do that.  He is the author of one book, America, Fascism & God: Sermons from a Heretical Preacher, (Chelsea Green, 2005), and was the “Best Minister/Spiritual Leader of Austin” in 2005.  He’s retired now.

In Vietnam he had a blast but was nearly shot by a sniper in a tree when his convoy passed by.  He kept the bullet that was in the gun when the sniper was dropped.  His actual job was photography and shepherding celebrities.  But also he once pulled the assignment of assembling blasted-apart bodies into something that approximated one body for each body bag.  He and his buddy were so rum-dumb from fatigue and shock that they began playing games, creating three-armed men and guys with giant lower halves and teeny upper halves.  But there had to be a body count.

The third Vietnam vet is Gary J. Cook, a Montana renegade who lives in the Flathead Valley and has been a law officer.  He writes wild horrific buddy novels, gripping and vivid.  He’s not a church-goer but the reason he began emailing me was to find out authentic information about Blackfeet warriors of the past because one of his characters was Blackfeet and had a spiritual supernatural flashback in a time of danger.  He was as contentious as David.  He’d ask me something, I’d tell him what I knew, he’d say I was wrong, I’d say, “screw it -- I’m not even Blackfeet so why ask me?  Then he’d write my information into the book -- accurately and effectively.  Luckily I’m used to dealing with grandiose narcissists -- I even like it.  (I kind of am one.)  So now, as though writing didn’t stir up enough trouble, he and his buddy are trying to design a perfect publishing house. 

Back to Ord.  He and I have both been disappointed by the UUA, which is as full of human shortcomings as any other corporation.  But both of us have found that the magical spiritual awakening during that long-ago week at Fort Worden has stuck with us.  It’s just hard to know how to get it into daily life.  How does it translate to power?  Or does it?

Sexist in the sense of thinking women are different from men and want to know things about women, Ord told me a friend of his helped create a movie called “The Invisible War”  (streams on Netflix) about female soldiers who have been raped.  It wasn’t the rape that was the atrocity so much as it was the total denial by all officers and other officials that rape was an assault or that it ever happened or that the women were human beings in the first place.  Women were an inconvenient imposition by non-warriors, so might as well get a little use out of them.  Once force and sex get linked, they can overwhelm all but the most impassioned moral pushback.  (Too bad there’s not much sexual use for an M15, though to a soldier a gun is his “woman” in the sense of faithful lover.  A gun that will not fire is -- to switch genders -- impotent.  The men who went into battle with impotent guns had been castrated.)  The movie worked.  Rapes are now prosecuted by civilian criminal investigators and courts outside the military, the same as many attacks on children by priests are now processed outside the Catholic church.

In the book Loehr is developing online (you’re welcome to follow it and can comment if you register with the blog company) he has a chapter called “The Big Red Knob” which to him is a reference to a big control instrument that’s not attached to anything so it’s only an ornament, God’s current status. David’s curiously blind to the association to the phallus.  Loehr doesn’t do sexy.  Maybe I was initiated to the idea when I read Mackinley Kantor’s “Spirit Lake” whose evil anti-hero warrior was not a blue duck, but Inkpadutah, “Enflamed Red Penis.”  The African terrorist criminals are sending their warriors into villages with amphetamines in one hand and viagra in the other.

Women in combat means something entirely different when the weapon is a predator drone controlled from a gamer’s dashboard and screen in an anonymous building in the American Midwest.  An airplane does not care whether the pilot is wearing nail polish.  Now that Title IX has been in effect for a generation, women play team sports.  Perhaps for the first time strategy really IS more important than hand-to-hand combat.  

Ord’s specialty is organizational design, organizing groups of people so that they can keep focus on the desired outcome, work together, maintain a kind of “morality” meant to prevent damage to each other while remaining effective.  He is part of a new effort to design software and provide support for organizations, probably mostly corporations.  If corporations push the idea that they are people (I disagree) they desperately need this work.  IMHO many of them are still operating under 19th century terms, so that they jam, let alone the collateral damage to the rest of us.  The next book I read will be his organizational design theory.   

(All these books are available on Amazon.)

David Loehr had a strong reaction.  I have his permission to add it to the post rather than putting it in the comments.

I want to comment on some things, and correct some others. 
Ord Elliott sounds very interesting and intense! Most warriors remain silent about "their" war -- I didn't talk about it in any detail until 17 years after coming home (when Marty suggested I prepare a Wednesday luncheon talk, after I'd finished all my exams and before starting the reading for the dissertation). As I wrote, I really think the main reason soldiers remain silent is because at some level the experience was sacred for them -- at least more powerful than anything before or since -- and they don't think they can do it justice in talking about it (plus the fact that, for Vietnam vets, just mentioning the war can draw angry and self-righteous bellowing by those who can't understand). 

I absolutely agree with Ord about the M-16. It jammed a lot, especially when compared to the far superior Russian AK-47. The M-16 was built around a different theory than the older rifles -- AK-47, our own M-14) that all used NATO rounds (so one side could steal ammo from the other and use it against them -- the bullet aimed at my head from the NVA officer's AK-47 was stamped in English on the base. What the M-16 offered was this new theory of putting WAY too much gunpowder behind a very small bullet (the M-16 fired a bullet around .22 caliber). This made the bullet VERY unstable in flight, and when it hit something it kind of splattered, reducing bones and sinews into liquid. The injuries were far worse than with an M-14. I saw bodies with a 1/4" entry hole in their forehead, with the back of their skull blown off. Others talked of soldiers shot in the butt, with the round exiting from their stomach, liquifying most of the stuff on the way. So while the M-16 was a horrid weapon for a war in a dusty sandy country, the theory behind it was solid. Yes, if it hit a tall stalk of grass on the way, it could be deflected, but when it hit the target body -- anywhere -- it did some awful damage. 

That reminds me of Cathy's nephew. In January of 2010, this big guy (23, 6' 4", maybe 40 lbs. too heavy) went deer hunting with an uncle and a couple other kids. He was using one of the modern hunting rifles built around the M-16 theory. He forgot to unload the gun before getting in the van for the drive home. Then something got caught on his sleeve, he jerked it, the gun went off, entered the top of his foot at the instep, and sort of came out the bottom of his foot. When we heard about it and were driving to San Antonio to see him -- the Army hospital there is regarded as one of the best in the country for war wounds -- I told Cathy I wouldn't worry too much, at that range the bullet would just go straight through. I didn't know about this new generation of M-16-like rifles. That bullet liquified the bones in his foot -- the doctor said there was literally nothing solid there at all to hold his toes on. So the front half of his foot had to be amputated. That result -- a massive and debilitating wound from an essentially tiny bullet -- is why the Army was enamored of it. Forgetting the pay-offs from gun manufacturers to elected officials, of course. Personally, I only heard of the M-16 jamming a few times, but I was with the armored cavalry, which fought a much cleaner war (dust-wise) than the Marines -- the elite core of macho men, who get sent in first, and generally have a much more dangerous time in war than Army soldiers.  How much Westmoreland played a role in all this is something I don't know anything about. 

On the idea of the Army using 19th century ideas, this is always true: the military is always preparing for the previous war. We're still fucking up in Iraq/Afghanistan for a similar reason. We would have to have killed every damned Vietnamese to beat them. We still don't know how to fight a guerrilla war well. And, of course, the weapons manufacturers make a killing selling huge weapons. The best book I've read on Vietnam was about a remarkable man -- John Paul Vann -- who was sent to Vietnam in 1963 as an advisor, and quickly saw that we had completely misunderstood the situation there. He came back, was respected enough (he was just a captain) to get an audience with -- either the Joint Chiefs of Staff or a bunch of generals with pull) to make a presentation to them, in which he said the biggest weapon we should allow in Vietnam was the rifle, so soldiers had to see who they were shooting. (The book is A BRIGHT SHINING LIE: JOHN PAUL VANN AND AMERICA IN VIETNAM (1988). That's the book that finally turned my thinking about the war around, and made it easier to see how we had completely fucked it up through ignorant arrogance. 

I want to correct some things you wrote about me. 

-- I didn't come in "under the protection of a powerful minister". You must mean John Wolf, but I had last seen him in 1963, he wouldn't even have remembered my name or face. I was just arrogant and obstinate on my own. Greta Godby offered part of their basement for the shop -- she must have regretted it, because I kept it so dusty, in the room with her big deep freezer. I left Meadville for a combination of reasons. The biggest was that M/L wouldn't approve my internship at University Church because it was "too close to home." I said I'd lose my free room and board if I left for a year (I got $200/month plus the 800 square foot apartment for being caretaker for the 36 co-op apartments). I decided to do the internship at University Church, was sure I could get past the MFC with that -- they never even raised a question about it -- and was pissed at Shengle anyway. Gene had suggested I stay at M/L as long as possible, to let them pay most of the tuition cost of the U of C, but we both knew I'd have to change either in 1981 or 1982 -- in other words, after my 2nd or 3rd year at M/L. Also, I wasn't going to get the D.Min. there anyway. 
-- I'll own the "defiant and iconoclastic" and "sentimental," though "craving prestige" doesn't fit right. Maybe craving respect or legitimacy. But M/L didn't throw me out. I left after my 2nd year (I'd already received the M.A. from the Div. School, and since I wasn't pursuing an M/L degree, it didn't make much sense to stay there. Though I did think there was an awful unhealthiness there. 
-- The guy aiming at my head wasn't a sniper. He was crouching behind some tall grass about 15 feet in front of me. Our convoy had stopped while I and two soldiers with guns got out to check out the brand new, very big and pretty, bunker. Of course it was empty -- a whole damned convoy of armored vehicles can be heard from a long way off. The guys wanted to "check out the area," so I stood on the bunker, they went out in a "V" from me, saw the two officers with their fingers on the triggers, shot them. I did have two very different, unrelated, jobs. First 5 months were in Saigon as "The Vietnam Entertainment Officer." After an OCS classmate got wounded, and got a Silver Star for behaving heroically, I felt cowardly and ashamed for being in Saigon, put in for a transfer to the field, pulled some shenanigans (all court-martiallable) and then spent my last 7 months in the field, attached to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, a small 6,000-man unit. 

Yes, ten days before coming home, the shithead Captain I worked under ordered me to go out and "get the story" of the huge ambush. This was shitty on a couple counts. First, it's an unwritten, but well-known, rule that you don't send people out into combat situations when they have less than 30 days remaining, because they'll probably be worthless anyway. The Captain was hoping I'd get killed (several months later, it cost him his career). I can't really blame him, though. I had pulled a really shitty (and funny) trick on him, my first night in the unit. Nobody liked him anyway, and I just helped let him show the commanding officer that he was a complete fool.

-- You completely invented the bit about creating "three-armed men and guys with giant lower halves and teeny upper halves." It is true that the sergeant and I, who carried the 13 dead bodies from their vehicles back to the road to be zipped into black body bags, carried the individual halves of two soldiers blown in half, and initially got the wrong bottoms on. I said we had to switch them. The sergeant, who knew everything about these guys, and told me their stories as we carried their bodies, or halves, was way overloaded, kind of exploded at the idea that we had to switch them, but of course we did. 

-- One important story you left out was that I talked LIFE Magazine into doing a photo feature on our unit. Co Reentmeister probably took 99% of all LIFE photos of Vietnam. He was just a year older than I was, but he was clearly a photographic genius. That story was one -- probably the main -- reason the commanding officer liked me. I remember a night in the Officers' Club -- by chance, Captain Ditchfield and I, and two more of our tent mates, always wound up at the large round table where the commanding officer (Colonel, later General) and his XO sat -- anyway, Ditchfield heard me talking about the many steam baths I visited while in Saigon (I probably spent 3-4 days every two weeks there, maybe more). I called them SBM&BJ's -- steam bath, massage, and blow jobs. This really offended Ditchfield's very straight-laced nature, so one night at the round table he told the two colonels about it. (He didn't know that the XO had asked me to recommend a good steam bath a couple weeks earlier, or that I subsequently bumped into him coming out of my favorite steam bath while I was going in.) The Colonel had no patience with Ditchfield, and said "Ditchfield, when you get us into LIFE magazine, you can go get your whistle blown at a steam bath too!" A rare moment!

Thursday, June 27, 2013


A few days ago this announcement appeared in my email:

Hormone Derange Editions & Peter Koch Printers 
are proud to announce the publication of 
The Complete Montana Gothic.

This is DIY publishing so tell all your friends, bookstores, and local librarians.

If you would like a copy, you can find ordering instructions here: 

. . . . . . . . . . . 

A few days later, this message came from Koch:

I just received this about Dirck found dead a month ago!!  Any one heard anything??

Begin forwarded message:
From: Patia Stephens>
Date: June 25, 2013 10:31:23 PM PDT
To: Peter Koch <>
Subject: Dirck

Hi Peter,

Congratulations on your new book. I look forward to reading it.

Perhaps you already know, but it occurred to me I should tell you. Sadly, Dirck passed away a month ago. I received an email from a family friend. His body was found May 23 in his apartment. It was a heart attack. 

I'm sad, but I know he was lonely and missed Evva terribly. Hopefully they are together now.

The final chapter, as it were.

Patia Stephens

Peter Koch Printers Website

CODEX Foundation Website 

The Complete Montana Gothic collects in a single volume all six issues of Montana Gothic: An Independent Journal of Poetry, Literature, and Graphics published from 1974 to 1977 by Peter Rutledge Koch at his Black Stone Press in Missoula, Montana. Original copies of the journal were scanned and are here reproduced in facsimile. Additionally, this edition includes seven illustrations, thirteen photographs, a complete contributors list, and seven new, previously unpublished articles and essays written expressly for this occasion by Adam Cornford, Edwin Dobb, Peter Koch, Milo Miles, Rick Newby, Aaron Parrett, and David E Thomas.
"Forty years ago, Koch and his “wild bunch” of cowboy surrealists rode up into the mountains to stir up a bit of excitement and trouble in the dense forests and alpine peaks of the Big Sky Country. Gang members included Montana originals, “expats” in Kathmandu and Tangier, and seekers of the marvelous from San Francisco to New York, Paris, London, Mexico City, and beyond. The world may have changed but these wildly poetic works have retained their freshness in spite of, or perhaps because of, the great grinding-down process of too much information in an age of mechanical reproduction."

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This is essentially a visionary genre, so it seems right that there should be a whole flickr group dedicated to photos of “montana gothic.”  The above is one of them.  Ghost towns.  The ghosts may have come with you.

This is a download of the original book.  Dubious morality in terms of rights.

I blogged about the earlier “Montana Gothic” paperback on Thursday, October 21, 2010.  I’m disappointed never to have met Dirck van Sickle, but then I haven’t met any of these other people except for Patia and Parrett, both of whom were writing about van Sickle.   Patia Stephens, to her great credit, managed this interview when van Sickle’s death was still only a rumor.

Koch is probably better known in Montana for his ancestor’s writing, which I blogged about on March 13, 2011,  “Splendid on a Large Scale: The Writings of Hans Peter Gyllembourg Koch, Montana Territory, 1869 - 1874,” edited by Kim Allen Scott.

Also for his luxury book/portfolio, The Lost Journals of Sacajewea, written by Debra Magpie Earling; illustrated by Peter Rutledge Koch.  Berkeley, CA: Editions Koch, 2010.  I haven’t blogged about it because I haven’t really looked at it.  It’s far beyond my price range and even that of the smaller libraries.  It doesn’t travel by interlibrary loan -- too precious. 

Consult Koch’s website:  From early on, Peter Koch -- following the Conrad descendants to California -- has made his own unique way in a context of high refinement and aesthetics.  He is an elegant art printer, not a scribbler like the others.

Dirck van Sickle captured a view of the West that the Blackfeet knew: the surrealism induced by an environment that is hard on human beings, deforming their brain contents into strange visions, so that the Blackfeet never needed any psychedelic drugs: just living was surreal enough.  Also enough of a gamble.  Also enough of a high.  Only in Missoula need one consult a pharmaceutic formulary of sorts, but then that’s so true of academia everywhere.  This unique Montana movement towards visions of emotion and transcendent connection is related to the earlier European surrealisms and also the later “pop” surrealism of steam punk, vampire lit, and the many permutations of identity trying to invent new definitions of atypical bodies and their desires.  It’s a shuttling set of horror boxes that never really stops moving because there is so much appetite for the contents.  Whatever the media insists, what the media constantly offers is mostly boredom.

A lot of well-read mainstream people have loved “Montana Gothic,” the book with the cowboy skull on the front.  Its extravagance, its darkness, its iconic interplay of screaming eagles and screaming stallions.  It makes “Deadwood” seem like suburbia.  Robert Kroetsch comes the closest to capturing this menacing grandeur of the prairies, but he’s on the Canadian side of the Line.  That glass wall has not yet shattered though there are cracks.

When Marie Heavyrunner’s body was found mummified and wrapped in plastic, pushed back against the foundations under her own house, I thought of this book.  (I hope you didn’t think I’d forget Marie.)   Earlier when I read the class assignment written by her step-grandson about Baker, who led the massacre of the Heavyrunner band, conflating him with Vlad the Impaler, leaving old ladies speared onto the pointed tops of fort palings, I thought of this book.  (Vlad is said to be the original vampire.)  I didn’t loan "Montana Gothic" to him, because he would never have given it back.  I thought that reality was too close to the fiction and the fiction was not quite as horrifying as the reality.  He made do with "Heavy Metal" graphic mag.  But there is something in this genre that people crave.  A search for resolution maybe.  Or is it transcendence?

Here’s Richard Matheson who wrote horror and sci-fi, achieving considerable fame before he died just a few days ago.  Richard looks a little like Tim in this photo but not in other more informal snaps.  I have no idea what van Sickle looked like.  Couldn't find an obit.  I don’t have any idea what accounted for the difference between the fates of van Sickle and Matheson, which in the end were the same anyway except on opposite coasts.  Matheson was a concept writer, like Stephen King: suppose this or suppose that -- what might happen?  

But van Sickle was a personal writer, the lyric poet turned demonic, giving testimony.  I prefer the latter.  It’s not learned but earned.  One only hopes to survive to tell about it.  If anyone will believe it.  The literary embellishment is just so they will.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


Language skills -- SPOKEN and heard language -- is acquired instinctively (interacting with other human beings) so that by the age of three or so, most people can handle the mental connections and ability to form sounds (a matter of breath interruption) well enough to associate spoken words with both things and actions as well as “felt” meanings like unfair or love or pretty.  Even children that young can appreciate that others have feelings and can guess what they are thinking.  If they never master this task, which can easily happen in situations of abuse or neglect, they will never be fully human.  Whether they can acquire the skill later in life is open to discussion.  How to develop it is also open to discussion, but brain theory suggests that the brain under pressure and given opportunity (experiences and skills) can do almost anything.

The brain cannot develop the skill of reading in the sense of managing print unless it already has the conceptualizations of speaking and hearing words as sounds.  We know that other animals have some grasp of this, but they can’t make “our” words because their oral-pharyngeal spaces are not the right form, can’t interrupt air flow into plosives, fricatives and vowels.  Before thinking about print use (literacy) it seems logical to make sure that the person can hear the sounds of the appropriate language (esp. the ones in the back of the mouth which seem to be dropping out over the decades) and form them properly.  Local idiosyncratic pronunciations (d for t, etc.) seem to be lessening because of video where one can see the sounds being formed, though d is still hard to distinguish from t even if looking at the speaker.  Teaching this when people don’t learn it naturally is what a speech therapist does.

The most basic step of print is being able to distinguish the shapes of the letters.  (I’m only talking about English.)  The weakness of handwriting is that different people shape letters differently so that a person needs to “learn” what are essentially different alphabet shapes: a’s that are open at the top look like u’s.  But there is another difference, which is that since hunter-gatherers learn shapes from looking for animals and need to see the shape of a head no matter which way it is looking, they will not distinguish between a p and a q, a b from a d, or even a q from a d.  Until they can reliably hold that difference in their mind when looking at print, things will be difficult.  That, of course, comes after the step of realizing that each letter stands for a sound.

Letter recognition in the mode of building blocks -- one block with A on it and another with M on it -- is a prerequisite to the ability to see the same letters all in a row across a page.  It helps that they’re grouped, like a credit card code or telephone number, and there are little signals in the form of punctuation.  It does NOT help that the groups that form words are pronounced one way one time and another the next.  Most of us realize that we have two vocabularies:  one that is spoken and one that is print but never heard or said.  If we pronounce those words without having connected them to the print word, we can walk into ridicule.  For years I talked about MAN-YUR before someone figured out I meant MAN-OO-ER.  Manure.  Much laughter.

Correcting pronunciation is a very touchy business since it is so often taken to be an indication of being dumb or at least an outsider.  And yet, not knowing unreasonable links between spoken and printed words is only a lack of information, not a lack of intelligence.  Conveying that information ought to be nonjudgmental.

To make associations between sounds and printed letters some kind of brain link must be formed in a real and physical way.  We believe that it is a matter of organic cell development which means that the tissue must have the building blocks and fuel to do the job.  If there are not the necessary molecules or sufficient oxygen, the link cannot be formed or might be formed in an inadequate way.   Being deaf or having a cleft palate or whatever also interfere.

Besides pronunciation, spoken words are dependent upon rhythm which is in every language.  The inflection and syllable emphasis of a word often changes its meaning.   The ability to recognize this element is in a different part of the brain than recognition of a letter and other elements of fluency.  We know that stutterers will stop stuttering if they sing.  We know that people in the grip of strong emotion (positive or negative) might begin to stammer.  Different languages have different “tunes” so that the same words spoken with an Irish lilt will be different than if spoken with a Texas drawl.  And yet sound training is labeled “music” and considered a frill.  Some experimentation has been done with reading out loud while clapping or with drum beats.  Reading out loud  and hearing reading out loud strengthen the connection between marks on a page and sounds in the ear.  Rapping is good for your skills.  Rhyming is pleasing.

But all this -- understanding that a print shape means a sound, linking shapes into words, recognizing that words correlate with spoken sounds and that both refer to a meaning of some kind -- is only a first level of learning to read.  I’m been impressed -- and frankly appalled -- by men (mostly) who read only for plot: what happened and who was at fault.  It’s not an indicator of intelligence since the men were a full range of stupid to quick.  But they did tend to be blunted about what are often called “deeper” meanings: philosophical.  Some understood politics pretty well: strategy, interpretation of rules -- though they had a tendency to want to use force and extortion.  But they did not speculate on the “meaning of the universe” or what a human being really is.  Their horizons were close -- the here and now -- so they were not interested in other ways of life or even history.  There was no moral or religious dimension except compliance.

When the people who worry about high level education speak of “true literacy,” this is close to what they mean:  not proper pronunciation, not reading the proper books or knowing the plots of movies, but the larger patterns of human thought that are normally studied at graduate level in universities.  At that point the oral exchange of knowledge and the printed exchange of knowledge -- not because of being “more intelligent” but because of having a thick substrate of associations and references drawn from both talk and writing -- gets out past the understanding of many people.  Yet that’s where the future is often formed.  This is the goal of education beyond skill-development and forced conformity, but it is not necessarily attached to print management skills, which are only a tool.  

Once the deeper concepts learned through reading and writing are present, they can be taken to other contexts -- ANY context.  What really counts is the link with real-world experience and ability to digest and use it.  (Enjoyment counts as use.)  We seem to be losing our ability to evoke high level understanding as well as destroying the environments that protect and encourage people who do it.  

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I signed up with TED TALKS to receive a video each day, their choice.  This one came today:

The content, the delivery, the wardrobe and the age of this woman impressed me greatly.  I think I may have found another role model.  Here’s a bit from her blog:
Lesley Hazleton lives on a Seattle houseboat these days, though she’s educationally and demographically of Jewish English origin.  She’s thinner than me, six years younger, and has (marginally) better hair.  Her education hashmarks are B.A. Manchester University, M.A. Hebrew University of Jerusalem, both degrees in psych -- roughly equal to mine, but quite different.  In fact, our theological stances are similar but not the same.  (I am technically a-theist but not secular.)  She is, as one might expect, much more attentive to status.  In fact, there is a curious echo of a very relaxed Maggie Thatcher.  (I’m more Margaret Mead.)   But the real difference doesn’t come out until her talk about Christopher Hitchens (in which she relishes the “spanking” Maggie gives Chris).  I think Maggie would love the thigh-high boots that Hazleton wears sometimes.  

In equating Hitchens with an English school boy who is “bad” to avoid being bored and relishes even pain as a relief from that, she neglects the same thing that Hitchens overlooked in Mother Teresa when he took her to task for her love of status and money at the expense of the people she was supposed to be saving.  Hazleton declines to admit that Hitch was living at the edge of the abyss, which he in turn didn’t acknowledge was deep in the psyche of Mother Theresa.  (Otherwise, why would he pay any attention to her at all?) This is where Mary Johnson enlightens us, though she herself is not easily sucked into the vortex, even being in thrall to Mother Teresa for years.  Or maybe she’s just willing to accept a lifeline thrown her by another human being instead of insisting on the more stellar angels.  Or maybe she’s a person who can have faith.  Not all of us are born for certainty.

I was only in Seattle (Kirkland is really part of the mega-city) for one year, but it was glorious.  My ministry there was an interim, meant to persuade the congregation away from their departed previous minister, whom they loved.  I was prevented by denominational rules from staying longer.  Peter Raible, with a certain amount of generosity towards Kirkland since the departing minister took Peter’s wife with him, remarked that if I’d been allowed to stay on in Kirkland, I would never have left the ministry.   There’s truth to that, though it doesn’t really take into account my even deeper attachment to the prairie.  Not the people -- the land.

So where I connect best with Hazleton is her intense nature mysticism.  Like her, I turned out to “have no affinity for organized religion.”  Like her, I enjoy being at the lectern and was good at it, though by now my voice is gone.  Unlike her or Mother Teresa or Christopher Hitchens or even Mary Johnson, I am anti-status, anti-class, and even anti-prosperity.  Like Tim, who also shares nature mysticism but does not find it salvific.  Just therapeutic.

There are ancient tendencies in religion.  I am the anchorite, the hermit, the solitary.  Tim is not -- he believes in community and loves his monastery and its young residents while relishing the protective separation from the world.  They do not copy manuscripts -- they make video.  I get the impression that Johnson is like Tim but Hazleton is like me.

Hazleton can be excused for ennobling the gut-squeezing de-humanizing terror of holocaust because of being Jewish, whose singling out to their minds surpasses all others in its cruelty and numbers.  This is pretty much inarguable because of the industrial cold-bloodedness of it.  My own inherited family historical holocaust was the highland clearances when the British landowners simply dumped out their tenants so that they could raise more sheep to make more money or the Irish potato famine in which a marginal people were given a push into starvation by destruction of their key food source.  This has given me a special affinity for the prairie Native Americans who were also the victims of profitable land clearance and convenient disease.  

I would argue that considering any one holocaust an entitlement and enlightenment superior to any other is pride that resists compassion.  The prairie tribes have had to put up with white triumphalism about white “right” to seize the West.  The slaughter of those people is romanticized -- or in a reverse imprint, it is alignment with the Indians made romantic.  Neo-nazis try to do that kind of evil bragging about destroying Jews but it is not admired.  In France and other countries forbidden by law.  No one goes to party-auctions to buy paintings of Nazi’s slaughtering Jewish families, but they do exactly that when it comes to the Plains Indians.  Somehow the stigma of being Jewish is countered and erased by the stigma of being a Nazi.  Tim points out the holocaust against stigmatized gays that is enforced by HIV-AIDS.  Only recently have the fundamentalist bullies who hate gays been resisted.

Hazleton writes on her blog eloquently about the “high” of being a TED talk speaker.  The strategy of TED is to provide an audience of high status and achievement, then to cherry pick speakers who will say things that this audience will accept and appreciate.  This is a prejudice that serves my interests.  (I don’t expect Tim to be invited and though he would have accepted once, it’s too late now.  But he has done the same thing: found people who are sympathetic and enlisted them.  The scribes and the pharisees have taken their revenge on him, assisted by disease.) Hazleton may be more universal than she thinks.

For many years Hazleton used her boots on the ground of the Middle East as a foreign correspondent.  She’s not an academic book theologian, but she can bring careful research to bear on the sensory reality of life.  It’s frustrating that when I first called up the search engine to find her, another video speaking against her was on the google list, but when I went back to find it, the google algorithm had removed it -- because part of their formula is the assumption that I would only be interested in what I approve of.  This is demonic.  It serves the vortex.

Hazleton is not censorious, but I suspect she does not suffer fools gladly.  Our shared mental location is on the boundary, close enough to observe closely but distant enough to see the big picture.  We’re “Sits in the Brush,” which is not comfortable because often it’s on the lip of the abyss, which cannot be seen into, only felt and smelled on the sucking wind.  I notice that one of her favorite artists is Anselm Keifer.

Each human has two opposing desires:  one is to be unique (that’s no one like ME!) and the other is to belong (where are my people?).  I’m not saying Hazleton is “my people,” but we’ve got some echo.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"THE UNWINDING" by George Packer

They say everyone of a certain social cadre is reading George Packer’s new book, “The Unwinding,” which is a fabric of stories about people struggling along without getting ahead, whatever that is.  So I’m wondering whether I’m unwound, in knots, or just kinky.  On the dentist’s sliding scale, I qualify for a discount because of my low income.  But he says my teeth are not the worst that he’s seen -- thanks to having mostly jobs with dental insurance over the years.  His assistant asked me lots of health questions (this dental practice is part of a “health consortium” that even includes counseling) which was boring since I don’t smoke, don’t chew (She DID ask!  This is Montana.)  And so on.  

She didn’t ask whether I used illegal drugs (would I say so if I did?), whether I got enough exercise (NOT), or whether I looked at porn online (my lips are sealed), whether I had STD’s, TB, Hep C, HIV.  (Do people actually admit it to a dental assistant?).  I volunteered that I cuss quite a bit.  But mostly she assumed that I was just like all the other tubby old ladies in Valier.  Not.  For instance, she assumed I banked in town but I wouldn’t bank at Wells Fargo if I had no other option, even stuffing money in my mattress.  (Because of experience with that bank when I was the City of Portland permit cashier.)  I volunteered about the diabetes since it’s relevant to teeth, but my biggie for teeth is Acid Reflux -- that wasn’t on the questionnaire either.

So -- I’m clearly ducking the original question.  Am I unwinding in the unfortunate sense -- losing ground?  If you ask me what I’m doing, I would have to say “digging.”  Not unwinding.  Getting to the bottom of things.  Imagine a terrier throwing dirt out behind in search of something: rabbit or fox -- not sure what.  The not-knowing is part of the digging.  There ARE knotty places and kinky places.

I look back over the decades at my great-grandparents, who managed to survive largely on the basis of gardens and carpentry.   The South Dakota side got a risky foot up from homesteading, though having started as teachers and superintendents.  It wasn’t until my grandfather’s brother’s son was here in old age that I realized how poor that branch was.  Bitterly, he told how as a small boy he was hired out to a neighbor, sent with no shoes and no lunch.  Finally his father fell into a job as an ag agent and became an expert on grasses, which meant they finally had enough money -- but modestly and by that time he’d grown up.  He’s made his living as a bookkeeper in strange places for resource extraction companies.  His attempt at marriage failed.  No children.  

On the other side of my family the story is complicated because they were women who grew up poor but married money, not just ranches but timber.  That meant there was enough to send the daughters to college where they found professional husbands.  But one moneymaker died young, which presented a monetary crisis.  And now the timber is gone.

So look at the family I married into, which included a millionaire in Minneapolis who was lucky enough to own corn fields where it was the city that grew.  He took one of his brothers into the family business, but not my father-in-law who founded a reservation mercantile company.  His one effort at branching out, a bank, was destroyed by a thief.   One son inherited the store and kept it running (in spite of WWII PTSD), the other son became famous and accrued a legacy of sculpture.  At his death, all money mysteriously disappeared and the sculpture was shipped to a warehouse.  His children had already died.  His alcoholic wife dispersed the legacy, left, then died.  Unwound.  One of the great-grandchildren is a world fencing champion.  Rewind.

I have two friends with about the same talents and personalities.  One swore as a young man (we were in the JFK era) that he would work to change the world.  He made a LOT of money.  His daughters married well.  Too soon to tell about the grandchildren.  He thinks only of his family.  The other friend started life walking on the wild side -- the REALLY wild side -- now he does good in the whole world and so does his daughter.  On the whole, he’s probably “made” more money than the other guy, but spent it all on kids who needed it desperately. This stuff can be loopy.

They tell us,  “If you don’t have a high school diploma, you’ll be paralyzed.”  Then we hear that a very young man who just pulled the rug out from the whole government spy apparatus was making piles of money, living in paradise with a glamorous pole-dancing mate, but had no degrees at all, though he’d attended classes.  He was an obsessive computer freak, which they tell us will take us to hell.  (They used to tell us comic books would do that, too, and look where comic book people are now.)  But where did that kid's idealistic leap to revealing dangerous secrets come from?  Comic books?

In the end a lot of this stuff about success and so on is just fuzz.  Things happen.  Reviewers are complaining that there is no coherent system and prescription to this book called “The Unwinding.”  They want an economic theory, like -- um -- Marxism was for the generation now managing us.  That is, of course, Marxism Lite -- not getting down to the proletariat revolutions.  Maybe that’s a different book.  What Packer evidently says is simply that present money systems, wherever they came from, have us all by the throat.  Right. 

Another complaint is that this book is all stories and no data or statistical markers.  But we’re constantly bombarded with data with no idea about what it means.  (Only 2 % of Catholic priests stay celibate; 30% of kids with heart transplants are not compliant, meaning they don’t reliably take their meds; 40% of the food in the US ends up in landfill ; one in six men is sexually molested or raped; only forty per cent of people with diabetes keep their blood sugar under control.)  I haven’t read this book because it saves so much time to just react to reviews -- isn’t that what everyone else does?  These statistics didn’t from his book. 

But where is George Packer coming from?  He’s a Yalie (school of CIA spies and the Bush legacy), born in 1960, parents both college professors at Stanford, maternal grandfather an Alabama Christian senator, paternal grandfather Jewish.  Packer and his sister both write.  He writes fiction, plays and journalism.   Both win big prizes.  Was in the Peace Corps.  Now has access to high-level sophisticated politicians.  He’s not some kid whistle-blower.  But VERY well-connected.

What can he know about life in this village where I live?  His field of expertise has been Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan.  Well, maybe if he has some insight into them, he could understand some of our tribal and family dynamics, the problems of vast lands with troublesome infrastructure, the difficulty of dealing with faraway political decisions uninformed by what’s happening here.  But why read such a book when the same vignettes are in the newspaper every day?  Why do publishers keep investing in them?  Why do we read them?  Or do we just buy them at Target and leave them around?