Sunday, August 31, 2014

EARLY ONE MORNING: Writing Starters

When I was teaching in Browning or Heart Butte, I liked to do these little starter bits to hand out to the class.  They could continue on with them or start something new.  Once in a while it worked.  Other times they figured it was some kind of trick and balked.  But right now I thought I’d try some “morning” beginnings for fun.  I chose books about the same time periods to be illustrations.  If you want to go on with one of them, be my guest.

If I were an Indian . . .

And it was buffalo days . . .

The day started early but the oldest and the youngest were already up.  Sun shone in the entry on the east side of the lodge because the calf hide was thrown back.  Not to let air in, because the sides of the lodgeskin were already rolled up to let the cool dawn breeze move through.  My little sister was curled against me but the baby was outside with grandmother.  I could hear him crowing while grandmother kicked up the fire and moved things around.  Puppies were yipping somewhere.

I’d been dreaming but I was too awake to remember, and yet I was still too sleepy to roll out and stand up.  I could smell the grass, the smoke as people threw wood on their fires, and then I heard the voice of the camp crier moving across the circle.  Now it really was time to get up. 

And it was between the Great Wars at a residential school . . .

The bed still felt strange, too high, and the smells were all wrong: harsh soap, starched sheets, indoor air that hadn’t been moving.  I could hear the Sisters in the hallway, arguing.  That meant the Mother Superior wasn’t making her rounds yet, probably indulging in another cup of coffee.  She didn’t seem to eat much -- none of us did -- but she drank a lot of hot weak coffee.  The rest of us drank tea.

I hadn’t been here long enough to get used to it.  The other girls assured me that I would, but I missed my family and my dog.  I’d been careful to see how we traveled and was already plotting how to slip away and walk back.  The problem was shoes.  These lace-up heeled shoes were too tight anyway, but they had taken my moccasins.  It would be easy to hide bread in my pockets.

The best part of the day was the first part: Mass.  I did love ceremonies of all sorts and the Sisters had a foot-pump organ.  The children who had been here a while had been taught to sing and though it was strange-sounding, I liked it.  I even hummed with it.  I would try to remember while I walked.


If it was the Seventies . . .

The radio alarm came on automatically with the weather and ag news.  It gave us barely enough time for clothes and a washrag on the face before school.  Grab toast on the way out.  Mom already dressed and starting the pickup to drive to her job in town.  The dogs and cats milling around under our feet, hoping to remind us they needed to be fed.  As soon as my mom had pulled out, we could smell our uncle’s reefers.  He’d stay up until the school bus picked us up, then go back to bed.  This was the longest he’d ever been unemployed.

I didn’t really wake up until I was by the window watching for our horses in the field by the road.  The sun came up slowly because there was a fog bank to the east.  My best friend got on the bus two stops later -- I saved the seat but anyway we all sat where we always sat.  We were excited because it was an assembly day so classes would be short.


If it’s now . . .

She tried not to wake up because it would just be another shit day.  The cardboard she’d put down to sleep on wasn’t enough to keep her hips from aching, but she was warm enough because there were people on either side of her.  Wait now.  Kika.  One was a dog.  Judging from the size and alcohol-sweat smell of the other one, it was a man.  Her mouth was bitter and fuzzy.  She smelled garbage and piss -- couldn’t escape either one in an alley.

Back into sleep.  There were birds flying and cat tails.  It was an old memory from when she had been on the rez.  They had told her the water birds flew far far far away and that the people used to make soft beds from cat tail fluff.  She heard the birds yelping.  Well, maybe it was only seagulls poking in the trash.  Or a car alarm somewhere.  The dog sensed she was awake and wagged its tail.  She reached an arm over it.  Maybe she could slip away before the man woke up.

To do these, first you sit without writing and try to imagine, using all senses the way an actor might to become the character.  Then you pretend you ARE that person and reflect about what would naturally come next.

What interests me is that even in these short bits and even though there are just four entirely different historical periods and no narrative plot-line, they begin to suggest ideas for where to go with any of them or several of them or even the implications of all four.  The hard part is ALWAYS to get something down to work with and even harder than that is getting your brain “connectome” into the proper pattern for story telling -- if that’s what you’re going to do.  There’s no particular obligation to have a plot line.  Any of these four could be worked into a poem or an essay of some kind.  Maybe a character study.  A play. You could read them to an art class and see what they drew.  Or just draw. 

It’s clear that I already had patterns in my own head about waking up, that thing about being in two worlds at once, the first light at dawn, who or what might be in the bed with you.  What noises would be made by those already up.  Then that suggests more.  What news would the camp crier have?  Would that man in the alley wake up mad?  How to slip away from the boarding school for the long walk home?  What that assembly might be about.

If you go through every day being observant, questioning, reading history and listening to the stories people tell, it’s easy to come up with ideas.  The hard part is keeping the focus and being tenacious.  I once saw a vid of a boy learning to do a backflip off a stone wall maybe three feet high.  He was landing on concrete -- it had to be painful, knocking the wind out of him.  If he didn’t land on his feet -- which he didn’t for about ten tries -- he’d lie there for a minute or so, then gather up and try it again.  Finally he succeeded and that was the end of the vid, but it was a major statement.  

His neurons were saying,  “Didn’t quite push off hard enough.”  “Didn’t tuck in enough.”  Or other stuff like that, until they were all coordinated and so were the muscles.  The pain would kick in later.  He must have waked up bruised.  Writing is the same way, except it’s the ego that takes the bruises.  That can hurt more, heal more slowly.

An upbeat story . . .

This battered old oak table with its round top had been part of her life a long time, so when they built the new ranch house, she insisted on a big east window in the kitchen where she could sit at her table in the warming sunshine to start the day.  In the still-unpacked boxes from the old house she'd found a slightly crushed old Valentine candy box full of ancient photos and was sorting them.

Upstairs she heard the noises of her six-year-old moving around.  She never had to be told to get up and would soon be down to have her hair braided.  Out across the yard trudged her eight-year-old with a bottle of lamb formula under each arm.  His grandfather had given him a couple of bummers to raise for a 4-H project.   His sister called him "MomBoy."  The lambs stuck their heads through the fence, bleating.   The dogs barked at them with no effect.

Then the mobile phone, set on vibrate because she hated loud noise in the morning, began to hum and slide around on the table top.  That would be her husband, due to fly back from a conference.  She smiled.  "I just found a picture of you as a toddler with your great-grandmother!" 

Saturday, August 30, 2014


There’s no such thing as writing.  All those people called “writers” you see in movies, on stage, in magazines, and all the writing about writers is a hoax.  All the prestige and awards and praise and respect and the money that rolls in -- it’s all a hoax.  When you see the “writer” portrayed as sensitive, exceptional, but an outsider; and then you see him or her pounding on a typewriter or scritching away with a pen; and then you see a big pile of crumpled up rough drafts; then something mysterious happens, the person is wreathed in light and words roll out onto paper.  Some angel steps out and dumps money on a table -- VOILA!   The writer is a young god or goddess.  Better than being a movie star because you don’t have to dress up.  It’s a myth.

Lucy Maude Montgomery pr photo

No one tells you that Lucy Maude Montgomery, who wrote the wonderful and inspirational “Anne of Green Gables”, committed suicide after years of drudgery repeating and repeating the same formula about “Anne” to please her publisher so she could pay bills -- the same as Louisa May Alcott.   My mother said, "Why can't you marry a nice Presbyterian minister and then everything would be all right."  Lucy Maude (same name as my mother) needed money because her nice Presbyterian minister husband was paralyzed with depression.  Louisa May's family was Unitarian, like me, but she was on the same treadmill.  No one points out all the miserable depressed men who went right on being miserable and depressed all their lives, thinking they could self-cure with writing.  It's fantasy. 

France loved Jim Welch.

Recently I’ve had occasion to talk to a young Blackfeet-enrolled writer who attended a famous writer’s workshop.  They didn’t teach him much -- specifically, not the courage it takes to be a writer, the risk, the danger, the level of work that is necessary.  The likelihood that someone will make you into a cash cow and not let you write what you want to write -- even if you’re Jimmie Welch.  Readers want brand consistency.

So what the heck IS writing?  It’s a metaphor.

A complexity of steps and motives are necessary and they are not different from the multitude of small functions and abilities that I frame out as the steps of worship -- which is really just focused intensity of being human.  No math necessary.  No dissection.  No posing.  You don’t even need a computer.  But there will be consequences, unpredictable.  Your unconscious may come out, but not because you want it to.  They call it "acting out."

Writing can’t be taught, but it can be learned.  It might not be saleable or even read by anyone.  A major part of it can be mastered without real public accomplishment happening.  No closure, no turning point, no epiphany or revelation.  No real explanation.  Some of it is found after the writer’s death and other people get rich from it.  Then there are the people who make a living by explaining you even though they never knew you and have no clue about your real, private, secret, dreaming life.

But there’s where it starts, where the sensory world and what it requires for survival, gets through the skin into the body and forms patterns in the mind.  If part of that is learning to read and if the person reads and reads and reads, they will have created a thick network of neurons in the brain that specializes in print, grammar, sequences of story, bits of dialogue, and a lot of other elements.  The thing is -- it’s all unconscious.  You don’t know it’s happening, it’s not on purpose, no one makes you do it, it just happens in there.  

Except for a lot of people, it doesn’t.  The neurons shrug and turn away.  But if their attention is caught by color, shape, line, contrast -- other visual elements that have nothing to do with writing but everything to do with seeing, they might paint.  Or it might be movement -- dance, athletic competitions.  It’s not a matter of choice.  It's choosing to DO it even before you can.  What was that meme going around about how many hours of practice it takes to master something?  Hundreds and hundreds.  It’s all unconscious.  

"Teaching writing" is then a matter of providing the opportunity to learn -- the space, the safety, the materials, the exposure, the time.  Bring your own motive.  Writing is the most minimalist art in one sense -- all you need is a surface and something to mark on it.  You could do it in solitary confinement, orally, by memorizing.  Since the material is life, it is everywhere, but like the water in which the fish swims, the writer has to realize it’s there.

What a person actually does with words might stay spoken instead of marked down.  It’s nice if people will respond.  Some of them might know where to find things you’ll like.  No one CAN tell you what to like, but you can figure it out.  There are things that will keep you from writing:  starvation (not just being hungry), sickness, no sleep, drugs, people mocking and sneering, worry, fear, fear, fear.  Exploitation.  Madness can be an advantage.

So you have stored up sense memories about a place and time.  You feel the patterns of it, you can see the dancing mosaic going on.  You begin to write everything down.  Confusion gets in the way.  Now comes some stuff you can learn.  A good teacher can chop it up so as to explain grammar, usage, sentence structure, stuff like antecedents, metaphor strategy.  Actually, you probably already know it, but it’s unconscious so the problem is figuring out what you already know and learning to manage it: your own internal life.  Learn without self-accusation because you're hitting the limits.  It's a good and necessary thing.

Once upon a time there were people who cruised the country, looking for writing that was marketable.  That’s as gone as writing books on clay tablets with a little stylus.  Those scouts disappeared along with grandma’s apple pie and the nuclear family.  You’re on your own now.  I have no advice.  Anyone who says they do is a con artist.  There is no publishing in the sense we once knew it.  Neither are there bonanzas of money.  There are a LOT of jobs for people willing to write in harness, producing unattributed print that explains, persuades, argues, advises and so on.  You can make a living that way.  (Wikipedia is a scam, getting you to write entries for free.)  Teaching is writing in harness.

Teaching can destroy your ability to write.  It can even destroy your ability to read.  Nothing is more destructive that the contemporary school lockstep through grades and certificates.  Public or private, day-care to post doc.  Writing now is a great numbing glacier of trivia.  It can destroy your soul.

Oh, come on.  That’s over-dramatic.  But that’s the pattern I see.  So, okay, how does one endure the Great Wall of Winter?  Well, there’s this ingenious thing called the Internet.  A blog is as good as a book and will probably be read by a lot more people.  You can illustrate it.  You can’t confine it.  Every published book of mine has soon showed up as a pirated PDF on the Internet, including the book published by the University of Calgary Press.  Copyright is a creature of nations, which are as much threatened and limited as publishing.  Literarily, we’re not far away from “Game of Thrones” except that the Thrones are not nations -- they’re affinity groups and transnational corporations.

In spite of all that, sometimes a hand reaches out to take yours in the dark, sometimes an arrow pierces your heart, sometimes you look up and see eyes as blue as those of newborn kittens.  Then you think,  “How did they do that?  I want to do that.”  So figure it out.  And do it.  Let it be its own satisfaction. 

The last step in this 5-step thing I have going is the factor of sharing with others, the empathy, the reaction, the consequences.  Uncontrollable.  You take your chances.  All this is drastic, but it’s metaphorical.  Hyperbole: exaggeration for effect.  Except I’m telling you the truth and the bottom line is always survival.  Do what you have to.  Smash all mirrors.  Buy more ink or toner.


As is my custom, I sent previews of the Valier library post to the librarian and to Bill Grant in case of dumb errors or wrong facts.  Cathy, the librarian, made several reviews, but I didn't give the Grants enough lead time.  Therefore, I'll put this rather lengthy correction on as a separate post.  There are readers who will be interested because they are long-time friends and because these generational developments -- which happen so quickly one can hardly keep up -- are typical of today's families with roots on the rez.

I've added a link to a story about Dr. Mary DesRosier, who lived in Valier for a while.  The Catholic church has meant a lot to this family.

If I discover a DesRosier has started a blog, I'll let you know.

Prairie Mary

Bill is married to Ann DesRosier[my name is spelled Anne] a member of a highly gifted early Browning family that has stayed pretty much on the reservation and has not held itself aloof but always been part of the life there. Anne is completing a master’s thesis in Environmental Studies in Missoula, so the whole family moved to support her [actually, Bill and I have one daughter currently living in Zuni , New Mexico working for Teach For America and our son Alexander Tilloch Grant lives and works outside of Whitefish as a Wrangler for the Bar W Guest Ranch. Our youngest daughter Margaret, just started as a freshman at Loyola Sacred Heart High School in Missoula. Our oldest daughter lives and works in Missoula, but not with us!] I am the youngest of all my siblings, and the rest of my family all still lives and works in Browning! Mary DesRosier, MD, lives in Browning and works for the Indian Health Service Hospital there] serves Heart Butte but sometimes lives in Valier.  The DesRosiers came to Browning from Havre in the 1890s when Peter was employed by the Broadwater & Pepin general store. The railroad was completed as far as Blackfoot in either 1891-1892, and my Great Grandmother Emma Jane McIntyre was the first woman to ride the train from Havre to Blackfoot. My moms father Edward Christopher Croff was born on the reservation in 1900, before the town of Browning was a town. about the same time as the Scrivers and the DeVoe Swanks, who started with a gas station in Browning and generations later have become a regional construction empire.  At first glance Bill seems like an immigrant from back east, but part of his reason for coming here was to work for Archambault and Company Architects and Engineers in 1979. local, just over the Canadian border.

Bill found out in about 1985 or 1986 he was one of 2 direct descendants of Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt, present at the Grand Opening and Dedication of the Galt Museum in Lethbridge. Sir Alexander’s daughter Amy married Bill’s Great Grandfather, Robert Grant. Robert’s son Gordon was Bill’s dad (Halcott’s) father.

Charles Magrath was married to another one of Sir Alexanders daughters, not Amy, Bills Great Grandmother! Yet another daughter married a guy named Springett, and she wrote a book about living in the Porcupine Hills. 
These are among his ancestors:  “Charles Alexander Magrath conducted foundation surveys of the Northwest Territories from 1878 until 1885. He joined Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt and Elliott Torrance Galt in their western industrial enterprises as a surveyor, later becoming Elliott's assistant and Land Commissioner of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company.  He was also the first mayor of Lethbridge, Alberta, which has a major street Mayor Magrath Drive named after him.”   “Magrath has been called "The Father of Irrigation in Southern Alberta. (Magrath and Galt compare to the Conrads or Paris Gibson on this side of the border.) 

Bill putting finishing touches on the Valier Catholic Church

From Bill Grant:

Charles Magrath married my great great aunt, a sister to my great grand mother Amy Grant.  Amy, Eliott Torrance, and Mabel Silas Magrath were all children to my great great grandfather Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt.  Amy lived in Boston with judge Robert Grant and raised four boys.  So the generation of Galt Children populated the Alberta area in a very difficult time.  Much has been written.  I was particulary interested in Magrath because he was a commissioner on the Canadian Water Commission, at the time when the 190_ Boundary Water Treaty was implemented.  As I find out more of this information, I will let you know how I spin the yarn on the story.  

Dr. Mary DesRosier

Here's a fascinating story about Anne's sister, "Doctor Mary."

This below was in the Great Falls Tribune this morning.  (8-31-14):


WM. THORKEL CLARK generously responded to the post about "Grasswoman Stories" by sharing some photos from his personal collection.  Thanks very much, Thorkel!!

August 8, 2014

Hi,  I enjoyed the Blog about Mary Ground and spent the morning looking for a photo I have of her taken by my father the same day as the one of her husband John taken with me.  We always knew of him as Chief Eagle Calf and I've collected a few of his cards.  I do recall he charged my Dad a quarter to permit this photo to be taken.  It was in the Park at East Glacier, July of 1939 or '40 not sure now and there is no one left to ask.  I do have a couple of other older photos of Mary but I downloaded them from a collection of photos held by the Browning High School library.  I think they have  now restricted the access to those photos by Internet.

I enjoy your Blogs.  
Regards, Thorkel Clark

Thorkel and John Ground

August 8, 2014

The photo I forwarded is of John Ground (and me, as a little kid probably age 7). I hope I didn't confuse my intent.

 I can't seem to find the photo my Dad took of Mary Ground, John's wife, that same day way back when.

You have my permission to post my eMail, etc. I've attached a copy of one of the souvenir cards John Ground sold to tourists at Glacier Park back in the 1920s and '30s.  I think that the markings are in his hand.

Regards, Thorkel Clark

Close inspection reveals pictographs of a "big man with muscles;" 
an eagle with its hooked nose and tail feathers, a wing on each side; and a calf.

Friday, August 29, 2014


The front entrance overhang makes a bit of shelter.

“Valier Library” is a bit of a misnomer since Valier exists as a hub to the much larger service area of people stretching out for tens of miles in every direction, even across county and reservation lines, into the lives of more people than use the banks, the churches, the schools, or maybe even the irrigation system that is the lifeblood of this little ag town.  Last night I attended a meeting of the Valier Library Board to consider an addition to the pre-existing library, a graceful but now bulging architect-designed building on the highway.

The members of the board present were Mary Brooke, Liz Makarowski, Ray Bukoveckas (Chair), Nancy VandenBos and Steve Kincaid, representing a cross-section from ranching; grain industry; part-time Glacier Park employee; a recently retired manager; and the son of Cecille Kincaid, who was the librarian here from 1970 to 1987.  These are sober, attractive, conservative but progressive people -- good listeners and planners as well as readers.  They appreciate and support Cathy Brandvold, who came to the East Slope four decades ago after growing up in Moorhead.  She is far from being any kind of hick or ignoramus.

In summer the entry becomes a patio.

A good library these days is always in a state of trade-offs and flexibilities, so the plan for the library must be the same.  One push-pull is between adults and children, which in part means balancing books against computers, but then again there needs to be a counterweight to the reflexive and addictive computer games.  Kathy says she acts more like a mom than a traditional shushing librarian, so part of her work is enticing the kids off to activities that require reading in disguise (art projects, mostly).  That can lead back to the computers from a different angle: to find things out, to look for ideas, to explore examples.  She keeps the lid on excess noise and doesn’t tolerate bullying or vulgarity.  

Most of the adults used to old-style quiet might appreciate a little more of it.  During the school year the quiet times expand and even moms have more time to read.  But the truth is that in today’s world most adults have so many obligations that they don’t have time to attend classes or even book clubs.  Writers are so commercially driven that they demand impossible fees, but even local writers or experts don’t draw more than a few friends.  Still, there are comfortable places to sit and read.  A few people are either a bit isolated or in cramped housing situations and appreciate the friendly atmosphere.  The library is also a good place to park a family member while business elsewhere is conducted.  The Hutterites come to borrow Christian books a box at a time, connecting themselves to the larger community.

But adults can also be problematic.  We have our funky freaks the same as any library anywhere.  Drunks or junkies are not welcome and know it, but there are always a small number of people whose wheels are not quite turning.  And then there are those who think that if they do illicit explorations on a computer, no one will know, which is why the computers are situated so the librarian can see the screens.  Anyway, this librarian doesn’t stay behind her counter.  For one thing, she never begrudges getting up to help people who are baffled or new to technology.  This is no elitist salon for the privileged and entitled.

Bill Grant, the architect presented with the challenge of responding to all this, already knew that he was making an addition to another person’s work -- sort of like marrying someone with a pre-existing family.  I knew Bill’s work from his very successful addition to the Valier Catholic Church but also from his work for the Piegan Institute, truly inspired buildings for their Immersion Schools that combine usefulness with beauty.  They are the product of careful listening and even active participation in that community, so that he really understood the flow of activities, the rhythm of the day, the adaptation of spaces to events.

Piegan Institute's Cuts Wood Blackfeet Immersion School in Browning

Bill is married to Anne DesRosier, a member of a highly gifted early Browning family that has stayed pretty much on the reservation and has not held itself aloof but always been part of the life there.  Anne is completing a master’s degree in environment and history in Missoula. Mary DesRosier, MD, her sister, serves Heart Butte but sometimes lives in Valier.  The DesRosiers came about the same time as the Scrivers and the DeVoe Swanks, who started with a gas station in Browning and generations later have become a regional construction empire.  At first glance Bill seems like an immigrant from back east, but part of his reason for coming here was local, just over the Canadian border.

These are among his ancestors:  “Charles Alexander Magrath conducted foundation surveys of the Northwest Territories from 1878 until 1885. He joined Sir Alexander Tilloch Galt and Elliott Torrance Galt in their western industrial enterprises as a surveyor, later becoming Elliott's assistant and Land Commissioner of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company.  He was also the first mayor of Lethbridge, Alberta, which has a major street Mayor Magrath Drive named after him.”   “Magrath has been called "The Father of Irrigation in Southern Alberta. (Magrath and Galt compare to the Conrads or Paris Gibson on this side of the border.)  
Engineering is one thing: practical considerations of materials and design that consider cost, durability, maintenance and so on.  Architecture responds to that, but is also a work of inspiration, aesthetics, and the human elements.  The clearest element of this is Grant’s inclusion of scissor-beams to keep the addition from just being a box, but rather relating to the existing cathedral ceiling and central fireplace.  The more the architect is included, motivated, and insightful, the better the results.

Snowfalls can come in any month of the year.
One early thought was the need for more shelving.  Then there was a concern about an ADA computer station and an ADA restroom -- even an ADA entry!  Not a lot of people arrive in wheelchairs, but we are an aging population.  Again, people wished for a meeting room or a place to be separated from hub-bub.  A key consideration was relocating the service desk/office so that the librarian could constantly scan the whole space.  There are laptops that can be taken to quiet corners.  All the furniture is constantly moving.  Crafts and food projects need collapsible tables.  Daylight, heat, and cold are key considerations.  What seemed at first to be practical, like a concrete floor that was mess-tolerant, later was realized to be impractical on Valier soil, which constantly moves, expanding and contracting so that it cracks all slabs enough for ants to find their way in.  Bill’s many years of local experience with materials and work crews makes him a major resource, quite aside from design.

Eave mobiles made from beads and forks.

The key aspect is still the library’s function as a hub.  Cathy told me that the kids have become so attached to the place that twice now children have made their way to it as a place of safety.  One was a child accidentally locked out who came for help, and another was a child who misunderstood the family agenda and got left behind.  It was after hours but under the overhang of the front door he waited patiently on the bench until his folks spotted him from the highway.  Everyone understands that a bank is a regional service.  Not all of us grasp that a library is a kind of bank that stores a wealth of knowledge, ideas, inspiration, and relationships almost like family, including the famous characters in books.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


My brother, my cat, my other brother  ('60's)

I was raised with boys, two younger brothers, both left-handed which seemed somehow linked to gender in my mind, sort of like the kid who grew up on a street where all the girls were Catholic and all the boys were from Protestant families.  The kid was in high school before he figured out that gender was not the salient point of difference.  And a lot older than that when he learned that both religion and gender are complex continuums rather than simple dimorphisms.  Some people never figure it out.  My mother didn’t.

My mother privileged “the boys” because she was one of set of sisters whose father longed for a boy.  The sisters set out to produce boys. This goes back into the ways of the British Empire, which are territory-based, defining success and wealth as owning land, which they assumed only males could do.  And the laws reinforced that.  If you owned land, you could survive.  This was proven during the Great American Depression that destroyed fortunes and jobs.  The families who could grow gardens and animals on land they owned were the ones who survived.

My brother, my father

My mother believed in education and was a teacher and librarian herself for many years.  Her sisters married ranchers -- land.  My mother married education -- a man with a master’s degree.  But his MA thesis was about the price of potatoes and he was still tied to the land economy.  His family had homesteaded.  Their brief spate of prosperity was from selling farm machinery (horse-drawn harrows) and the profit was quickly removed by the shift from mechanical land-management to chemical land management.  Instead of harrowing, one sprayed.  Spared from mechanical trauma danger, now the farmer was exposed to organic body systems interference.  My father died subtly demented, hugely obese, estranged from family, supported by his wife.  

My own education has saved me.  I also shared the idealism of both parent families.  One should do good in the world, contribute to progress, and possibly write the Great American Novel.  But my mother covertly believed fertility is a trap.  One of the land mines in it is primogeniture, the idea that only boys can inherit land.  Her two sisters both gave birth to twins, but one had only girls and the other one had twin boys plus another boy plainly unsuited for ranching -- plus a girl.  All the girls were clever and beautiful (my cousins are far more glamorous than I am), which was good since their fortunes lay in marriage.  The result of gender dynamics was family quarrels until the two sister’s husbands (who were brothers) each claimed one of the male fraternal twins.

Mark leaves for Browning, MT.  
Within five minutes of arriving, his duffle was headed down the road with a local.

The first problem my brothers faced was the draft, so -- just as counterphobic as I -- they joined the Marines right out of high school.  Neither saw combat.  One passed his three years playing chess on a ship in the Pacific and the other saw a lot of excitement (catching rattlesnakes, racing motorcycles on the desert) but never left the USA.  The chess player returned quietly and prepared for veterinary medicine but finally backed off.  The snake hunter got his MFA and taught junior college.  Both came to visit me in Browning, were shocked, and left.  Too rough for them.

These were big handsome smart guys with degrees.  I don’t know how much they absorbed my mother’s fear of homosexuality, which came from her bullying father whose worst insult was to bellow at a little boy, “What are you?  Some kind of homo?”  I don’t know whether my brothers found my father’s books in his sock drawer:  Freud, Kinsey, Kraft-Ebing, Masters and Johnson, Van de Velde.  I did.  I thought they were embarrassing.  Not very enlightening.

What really set my heart racing (as well as other anatomical responses) was a few paragraphs in “Green Grass of Wyoming,” where Ken (who was Flicka’s friend in the prequel) was sitting on a high hill with his potential sweetheart, whose pulse was racing so much that it made the hankie in her breast (ulp!) pocket leap rhythmically.  (The hankie alone dates the passage.)  I wore out that page, no manipulation necessary.  Maybe that’s how I got imprinted with the eroticism of landscape.

My mother and her boys at Mark's wedding.

I never talked to my brothers about sex or gender expectations.  There was a tiny bit of “playing doctor” that Older Brother highly disapproved of and closed down by threatening to tell, though we were pretty young and had no way of knowing what would happen if anyone knew.  Older Bro married late to a divorced woman with grown kids and Younger never married, though he produced a daughter to cherish.  I married but might as well have spared the effort since there were no benefits derived from it: no land, no other property, no fidelity, no children, not even any productivity since all the efforts were focused on Scriver bronzes.  My work disappeared into his.  But it was amazing for the decade that it lasted.  No regrets.  An education.  And I got the name.  Scribbler.

All three of us seem to have had some sort of lid on success.  Too dangerous, too many compromises necessary, too unwilling to accept collaboration, maybe fear of the loss of freedom, though in the end we weren’t world-travelers, unless you count the reservation as an exotic foreign country and I do.  I went the farthest in terms of education.  The U of Chicago is also a kind of exotic foreign country but I had no craving for a Ph.D.  Nor was I politically ambitious within my denomination.  I just wanted to know stuff and live on the prairie. 
July, 1952

The ultimate nature of my brothers emerged after my mother’s death.  The Younger had pre-frontal cortex brain trauma from a fall that literally cracked his forehead on a sidewalk.  He showed no emotion at my mother’s death though she had supported him for a decade.  The Older was my mother’s pride and joy who had not been to visit for years but, unemployed, came in time to see her through death and be her executor.  He felt his veterinary knowledge qualified him to take charge of her.  He hadn’t quite expected what that would mean in terms of cleaning up shit and providing pain relief.  Somehow he had assumed that I would do those things -- he doctor, me nurse -- but my mother insisted that I had to earn a living, I had to go to work.  ( I was the only one employed at that point.)  So I did.  The Younger watched and smoked.

After the death the Older bro wanted the Younger Bro out of the house ASAP.  He did not register the brain damage.  Younger participated gleefully in emptying the house of furniture.  When Good Will said the quality of the stuff was too low for them to accept it, the boys asked me to remove what I wanted and then set the rest out on the front yard with a sign saying: “free.”  People carried it off on their heads -- too poor to own cars.  

March, 1956

Older had brought an inflatable mattress.  He sold everything else out from under the Younger, who resourcefully recreated the old furniture layout with cardboard boxes.  While I was at work, the two went to the lawyer and some money was disbursed from the estate.  Younger left to some mysterious destination in his mammoth white old 4-wheel-drive 3/4 ton pickup.  (I called it “Moby Truck.”) Older began the cleanup necessary and dealt with the real estate salesperson.  I paid off the last of my seminary debt and left for Montana.

The house sold quickly and when I look at it now (5103 NE 15th  in Portland) on Zillow, it looks better than it has from the beginning.  Younger used up his money, used up his welcome with those rancher relatives who had land, and finally died on the street, indigent, vaguely paranoid.  He could not get any help from welfare or disability or even the Veteran’s Administration, which had only begun to realize what pre-frontal cortex brain damage meant. He would not cooperate.  He lied.  He said he was investigating them for the CIA.  Older invested his third of the money, moved to a slightly better house, and otherwise went on living modestly with his wife the way he always has.


What does it mean?  We were very careful and prudent behavior-wise, though both brothers were smokers (I’m not) and Older is probably a beer-alcoholic.  We’re not family people in the sense of participation, but I look at genealogy in search of clues.  All the aunts and uncles are dead.  (I’m 75, somehow.) 

Early Fifties

My mother said on her death bed,  “I hope the next world is as much fun as this one has been!”  She was faking it to some degree -- this world was full of hurt for her as it is for everyone -- but not entirely.  We HAVE had a lot of fun.  Silliness.  Excitement.  Adventure.  Everything but money. Actually, I think girls have a lot more fun than boys.  My mother used to say,  “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”  Get an education.  Own a house. Resist temptation.  Don’t fall down.  Children optional.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014


Human bodies are a process, not an entity, though bounded by a skin -- taking in air and food, throwing off waste through the skin and so on.  Malfunction on one end of a spectrum of emotion complex that runs through everything is mild malaise, a shadow.  Like a moving cloud under the surface of the waterline of existence (the one between conscious and unconscious) as though a manta ray were swimming past, harmlessly.  People attribute a shadowed mood to a disappointment, a change in the weather, or maybe catching a cold.  Just a flicker in the glow of personality.  Not a big deal.

But a dear friend, a psychiatric nurse in Europe, emailed me in the night about a disturbing story at the other end of extremely threatened identity.  Don’t look at vids of this before you go to sleep.   The story at this link will not show any photos.  It's a couple of years old.  There are "disturbing" photos below, so you might want to stop reading.

Briefly, a man in “party mode” driving with his girl friend to an event location began to act strangely.  He put her out of the car, left, messaged to say his car had broken down, left the car, discarded all clothing, walked to a Miami Causeway overpass where a homeless man was sleeping and attacked him, popping out his eyes and chewing pieces off his face.  During the fifteen minute assault cars and bicyclists passed by, calling the police, and a squad car arrived.  The officer immediately shot the attacker dead.  The incident was attributed to drugs, unspecified, possibly even undefined or named -- something “creative.”  The media called it a “zombie drug.”  Dehumanizing.  Un-alive.

This doesn’t approach the evil of Bar Jonah (I DO believe in evil, but I also think it is always human) who killed neighborhood boys, chopped them up, cooked them and served them to their families.  The element of plotting and executing such a plan has always seemed far more evil than an eruption like the man in Miami, who seems clearly to have taken his brain “off line” through his own deliberate ingestion of drugs.  Bar Jonah had a corrupted operating system.  He probably didn't know it had happened -- wasn't aware of how abnormal he was though he complained of symptoms.  “Cool” computer language is one way of stepping away from our animal nature.  It does not capture emotion, which is better served by images than words.  Once detected, Bar Jonah's actions were hard to believe.  One victim’s mother still swears her son is somewhere alive.  

The zombie man was seen and dispatched at once.  No question, no trial, direct action, reflex.  The homeless man now has a home -- he just can’t see it.  But among us are other brain dysfunctions that aren't noticed by anyone until the person guided by that brain begins to shut down.  I’m thinking about my own father who basically began to sit life out after he retired.  If you said anything to him, his response was a mocking “duuuuuh.”  He finally had a major stroke and took a month to die. In the Sixties we weren’t conscious of gradual dementias.  His sister also drifted into dreamland for the last decades.  She was younger and was in a nursing home.

It’s possible that we will look back on the 2010’s as a time when we didn’t realize that our powerful old men leaders were going crazy, as individuals and as a group.  An artist friend said he went to a meeting with some promoters and was horrified that they looked like cartoon stereotypes of hog capitalists: red faces, big bellies, snorting laughs.  Too much fat beef, too many martinis, too little exercise, a little cocaine and the worst drug of all, POWER.  Predator drones are killer zombies.  Except that they are rationally sent, with preplanning and mixed motives, making the neighbors of our enemies “eat” their children.

Makeup for a zombie festival in Venice

My psychiatric nurse friend did a bit of research on the phenomena of faces being torn off, how it is meant to remove identity.  I had previously been interested in the case of the woman whose face (and hands) were torn off by a chimpanzee belonging to her friend, partly because of my past with animal control and partly because of theatrical theories about masks.  In fact, I think most of us are fascinated or why would the Guy Fawkes mask have become such a powerful and pervasive symbol?  The victim of the chimp attack was given one of the early face transplants.  Now she must learn how to make it expressive as the nerves and muscles grow back.

A real face being transplanted.

I’ve been interested in what I call the Star Trek phenomenon:  that we can become so used to the latex distortions and creations meant to indicate creatures on other planets that they become normal, even attractive, sympathetic.  Our media-driven world pushes in the other direction: they present an ideal (which requires buying their products) and stigmatize everyone who doesn’t conform:  too fat, too hairy, too lumpy, too dark, etc.  I’d like to know what happens in the brain for us to begin seeing a Wookie or Whorf as a sympathetic person.  

Early research on baby ability to recognize faces used paper plates with a smiley face drawn on -- no more than an emoticon  :-)  and the youngest infants would stare.  As their ability to discriminate grew more detailed, they began to relate to their caregivers with obvious enthusiastic recognition.  It’s very useful.  Even the little gray feral cat I call “Smudge” runs eagerly to see me because I feed her.  Her enthusiasm makes me WANT to feed her.  These phenomena have been studied for a long time as “psychological,” both the need to “have” a face, and the need to cause others to respond warmly to that face.  We want God to have a face.
This woman's face was torn off by a pet dog.

To tear off someone’s face, gouging out their eyes, is to try to destroy all interaction, to reduce the person to the level of food, of meat.  (I’m uncomfortable eating a fried fish that’s looking at me.)  One of the things taught to animal control officers is not to stare into a dog’s eyes if he’s aroused and bristling -- a stare is interpreted as a challenge and might trigger an attack.  It’s as though actual beams come out from our eyeballs -- one can feel them when stared at.  (And I’m really bad about staring -- I think because I feel invisible and impalpable, an unseen see-er.  Of course, in theatre or the pulpit one WANTS everyone looking.)  They used to tell teachers of Indian kids not to look them in the eye because it is invasive and their culture considers it rude.  No more.  These days your eye is likely to meet a critical returning glare!  Which is easier to deal with than someone who won’t open their eyes.

Voluntary defacialization by wearing masks that are all the same is the opposite of the control-by-image-identification strategies of video-taping protests, using facial identification software to defeat even plastic surgery by analyzing bone structures and the whorls of ears. Pushing back in the other direction are selfies and video-Skype.  I have to say that sometimes relatives send me group selfies that are flat-out scary.  I think about small animals or surgical patients surrounded by pressing-close faces, showing their teeth or masked like bandits.

Voluntary surgery -- she wants to look like a cat.

Except for statues, we haven't been able to see faces thirty feet tall until this century.  Every tiny flinch or pulse conveys the interaction of the neurons in the skull.  We see those faces change over the years, change under the knife.  We fall in love with them, shrink in terror from them, laugh and cry with them.  And yet when we see them in real life they are often smaller, grayer than we thought.  I think what I’m saying is that though we like to judge phenomena by appearance and label, that’s NOT enough.  Whether “inappropriate” becomes Evil depends upon things like intensity, intention, context, meaning -- the ability of one’s brain software to empathize.  My nurse friend says that a shared symptom of his ward's population is the inability to "read" people's faces.

The woman whose face was torn off had to be moved to a different nursing home -- not because she was unhappy or upset, but because the other patients couldn't bear to look at her.  The moral judgment, the stigma, is not in the objective fact of flesh that isn't what we expect, but in the subjective reaction of people with limited imaginations.  Didn't they realize that the nursing home was a different planet in an inner space?
California Wookie

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


The psychological impact of unexpected cold wet weather is that the household tightens around the heat sources. (Squibbie under the cat-incubator which is the hanging lightbulb next to my computer and Crackers on the electric blanket.)  My foot-warmer is on and I’m wearing socks.  I wouldn't be surprised to find mushrooms in the yard.  Now I’m retrieving “saves” from the summer when my brain was looser and more inclined to wander.
Here’s a remarkable one from “The Edge” which has a sub-category called “The Reality Club”.  It is an argument AGAINST “reality” as we define it today, entitled “Touched by the Tremendum”  The talker is Terence McKenna and the date of this talk is 3-27-90, though one might guess it was from a couple of decades earlier since it is a “pitch” for psychedelic experience triggered by psilocybin.  I saved it because I am so interested in the human mind and whatever will keep it from being locked into one punishing connectome -- call it Calvinism if you want to, but it could be fascism, or profit.

Briefly, and perhaps not quite accurately, McKenna goes back into the paleobiome.  Our curiousity about it has generated a lot of theories.  There is general agreement that humans evolved in Africa. We are thought to have begun like the other primates as arboreal bands living on fruit.  Then a planetary climate shift -- I need a geologist here -- dried up whatever climate patterns supported the forests so the hominids came down to the grasslands where they followed grazing herds to pick off laggards and carrion.   

Now McKenna goes theory airborne. The dung the herds left behind were the growing media for psychedelic mushrooms, which humans discovered.  Also, the exposure to new foods and new social patterns triggered many mutations, including the transformation of arboreal location hoots and hollers to pack-hunting signals, which led to language.  As a bioethic premise, this is lots of fun to explore.  He feels that the mushroom-powered capacity to dream led to the development of the early Mediterranean climax cultures.  He thinks that the symbols found in early writing and taken to mean “wheat” are really about mushrooms.

The next step is that the horse culture raiders from the high grassy Mongol plateaus, not just riding but also driving chariots, came down on these people and pushed them north into Europe, where they made homes in the shelter of the cliffs along rivers.  (This is Neanderthal habitat.  It also makes chariots impossible.)  Just before this shift is a time he calls “the Archaic.”  McKenna’s idea is that what we seem to be searching for in our predatory and destructive modern lives is a restoration of the Archaic through dreams.  He feels that our fascination with both medieval Europe and classical Greece were attempts to recover our capacity to dream that didn’t go back early enough.  In Europe, deprived of herd-supported fungus, the people turned to honey and learned to ferment it into mead.

His reasoning is centered on Western Civilization as it developed in Europe.  Why didn’t the people following the great American prairie herds ever get hooked on buffalo chip mushrooms?  Or did they?  There was peyote, of course.  McKenna and his brother went to South America and returned with the news of ayahuasca that enchanted many.  In fact, it turns out that Central and South America have a rich and complicated history with psychedelics.  It wouldn’t be unreasonable to premise that humans are always trying to get out of their minds, whether it’s through the generation of endomolecules like adrenaline or serotonin or oxcytocin or testosterone -- or by ingesting something from the environment.  Deprived of access to vegetative sources in rural life, we turn to manufacturing designer drugs.  (I’m not counting Big Pharma.)

I looked up psilocybin, which appears to be one of the most benign of these substances, often classified as an endotheist drug because it is said to be spiritual and put one in touch with “god.”  (Again, this betrays the European hegemony over matters of the mind by defining anything that feels holy as “theist,” related to a big being in the sky.)  In Oregon, where there is lots of rain and many cow pastures, people go out looking for Magic Mushrooms quite a lot.  Only some kinds of mushrooms have the proper substance.  And it seems to be rather fugitive, so that sometimes drying the fungi disperses the psilocybin.  At least those who went into the fields got fresh air and exercise.  Of course, one must avoid toadstools.

All ingested molecules must interact with the molecules already present in the body, including both those floating in the blood because they have been produced various ways and those inside the cells.  The effect of an entheogen is not just altered by these metabolic interactions, but is also much affected by context.  Look back at the five steps of function that I framed up some weeks ago.

By Thammuz

In terms of the sensorium, the first step, which is the gathering of information from outside the skin, psilocybin seems to increase acuity of eyesight and general sensitivity.  The effect on the second step, which is the sorting and filtering of the neuron coding of the sensorium, may be where the substance is most active.  The third step is also a process likely affected, as this is where the conclusions of the sensory nexus come together into value judgments and editing.  The hope is that these character-producing patterns can be opened up to possibility and renewal.

The fourth step, which is taking action, is discouraged in a religious atmosphere of meditation and isn’t safe when what is happening inside the skin is more powerful than what is happening outside the skin.  People may feel they are in a different world entirely and forget which side of the street to drive on.

The fifth step, which is empathic sharing with the people around one, depends on who they are and what they think, because that will affect the way the experience is understood and what happens in future.  A kid or outsider may get contradictory opinions: one of approval and one of blame and restriction.  Usually such a contradiction makes the person defend the practice.

At least, in contrast to the home lab inventions, psilocybin is organic and has been used for millennia, not unlike alcohol or marijuana.   One can find it spontaneously and without cost.  Those who feel the secret to a good future is buried in the Archaic past will value this.  Big Pharma, without some way to make big profits exclusive to itself, will continue to demonize psychedelics of this kind while promoting equally marginal psychotropic medicines because they are medical and conform to certain protocols imposed by the government -- which is controlled by Big Pharma.

At the same time religious professionals based in institutional churches such as Christian denominations and Jewish synagogues, will rely on sensory cues (buildings, music, incense, flowers, candles, formal clothes), prayer, strong metaphor and community consensus to support a feeling of holiness and meaning.  It’s harder than it sounds, which is why many people only know blunted and mediocre experiences that have been brought in from other places and are not supported with proper training.  

I tried to cook up a diagram that would relate the health-preoccupied Christian Science church to the industrial/capitalist CVS juggernauts to the homeopathists and herbalists to the military/mafia of street drugs, but it was too complex.  Maybe the rhizome pattern with mycelia instead of stolons.  Anyway, maybe the entheogens and endomolecules are not the real key to the longing we feel, however Archaic they may be.

The strongest drug is always passion.  If religion doesn’t supply it, there’s always sex.  Or danger.  Or narcissism.  Words and dogma are judy abracadabra from outside the skin.  Only when meaning is felt inside can the real connection happen.