Friday, October 31, 2014

"FIGHT CLUB" -- Are You Scared?

Brad Pitt in "Fight Club"

In Portland in the Nineties one often ran across Tom Spanbauer’s publicity about his writing classes that pushed people towards “dangerous” writing, meaning risking disclosure of one’s own secret life as well as taking on the big scary stuff like death, evil, drugs, sex.  Maybe even religion, but I was still doing pulpit supply and dealt with that scary stuff on most Sundays.  Then Chuck Palahniuk sort of accidentally half-followed me to Montana, or at least Missoula, which is “only a few miles away from Montana.”  

Intellectuals love to believe that they are getting to the dark roots of life and such stuff sells pretty well, so the Montana Festival of the Book (now ended) was happy to put Palahniuk on panels.  He is self-described as a “transgressive” writer, and the undergrad intellectuals love that, though their idea of transgression is ordering beer at working class bars down by the railroad tracks.  No need to actually pick a fight.

Palahniuk as Hugh Hefner with two bunnies

Of course, the most recent version of “transgression” at a Palahniuk reading was wearing pajamas and waving glow sticks.  The Valier high school crowd does that stuff.  The tag for his most recent book is “Beautiful You”.  “From the author of Fight Club, the classic portrait of the damaged contemporary male psyche, now comes this novel about the apocalyptic marketing possibilities of female pleasure.”  Too late.  Been done.  Take a number.  

Mickey Rourke was early to the game.

Yesterday Netflix finally sent “Fight Club,” the movie.  I haven’t read the book.  The movie was not at all what I expected.  It’s a lot more like “Eraserhead” than a Mickey Rourke rough-stuff flick.  Very “carnal” in several senses, including the medical illustration trip through brain cells that is behind the titles, and the hints about holocaust in the making of soap from human fat.  There’s no follow-through on that or the relationship to fascistic domination, like medical experiments and militaristic conformity.  The whole thing is confused by the Nietzsche philosophy that one brisk female reviewer nailed as “sophomoric.”  Billed as being about the doubts of “thirty-something”, it’s more like fourteen-year-old anxiety about performance -- but maybe thirty is the new fourteen.  

If you are interested, online there’s lots of philosophical stuff about the strategy of the presentation, technical material about lighting, sets, makeup, and so on.  They give Oscars for this stuff, so maybe it’s now more interesting than the actual acting.  Given that the Great Satan is defined as advertising (poor Nikia furniture!) and that the highest level of cinematography has developed in terms of commercials, consider the irony.  As a promotion for Brad Pitt, the movie is a great success and a cult kernel.  I’m happy for him.  But the reviewers all note that the advertising for the movie was faulty.  Luckily, DVD’s make a great backup.  It all makes more sense with a beer and a couch.

Extreme fighting includes "grappling."

Fight clubs, extreme fighting, and uncontrolled raw violence expended on kids and women are everywhere around here and -- I suspect -- all over the planet.  It’s confused with sex, territory, success, and all the arts.  One-on-one smashing the other guy has a peripheral relationship to hardcore S/M.  I’m not entitled or equipped to say more, but there’s a lot of the pop “gothic” floating around the periphery of both.

Something not addressed is the distinction that Solms claims is apparent on fMRI and similar studies, which is that there are two neural pathways for rage which energize two distinct neuronal networks in the brain, simplistically described as “hot” and “cold.”  Hot aggression might be, in legal terms,”justified” as retaliating for something like violation and danger to loved ones or places, even to the level of mortal violence.  Cold aggression is simply dominance, usually identified as male.  Ironically, cold aggression can prevent violence by discouraging challenges and imposing order.  Consult Africa.  After the early atrocities, it might not be necessary to do more, unless they’re entertaining.

My evening movie stream has been “The Black List,” which is about a cold aggressor with one hot-spot, his beautiful and compassionate daughter who works for the FBI and looks like the young Monica Lewinsky.  The assumption is that if you kill off the “most-wanted” of the world, it’s a good thing to do and will improve society.  

Three times now I’ve worked for school superintendents who shared that philosophy.  Usually I end up on their black list.  One even had a list of ten students he wanted to somehow eliminate.  It never occurred to any of these men that their anxious need to be in control was triggering resistance from anyone with any spirit.   The guy with the list of bad students actually convinced the cops to come up to school, handcuff and arrest the defiant 7th grader at the top of his list.  Did this make the hatred and sabotage go away?  It just came out in the open and spread through the whole community.  That’s about where the whole world is now.

James Slater on "The Blacklist" as cold aggression

What if the “Fight Club” men expending themselves by pounding each other had turned their muscle to rebuilding that decrepit mansion?  At least some parts of the planet still offer hard work to their men.  Daily ordeals that impose as much bruising, blistering and bone breaking action, but with something to show for it.  I notice that there’s a correlation between men who beat up on infants and their lack of work, which is why they’re reduced to babysitting without being honored for it.  Too many men (specifically) do not have the kind of jobs that use up aggression in sawing wood, pouring concrete, digging ditches.  Not having work produces “young men leaning against the wall” until they get a gun in their hands and propel their frustration into interrupting other lives.

Sports take up some of the slack, but those same misguided school superintendents are anxious about not winning because their job and status in the town is dependent on the success of the team.  So they allow corruption: drugs, abuse of girls, beer-blasts, after-game fights, gambling as long as it's covert and not connected to them.  The secret fight games are eventually the source of "Mayhem".  

The military would seem to be another outlet for aggression, but -- like sports -- they don’t exactly teach useful skills.  Even the keyboard jockeys may find they don’t know programs that would be useful for business.  Locating predator drone targets is not usually a civilian skill, no matter what the recruiter might have said.
Buckin' bales.

In Valier there are still “muscle” jobs that require effort and exertion, self-starting and persistence.  Even a grocery store means a lot of hoisting heavy boxes around and staying alert.  But even mowing lawns and bucking bales have gone to being high-investment big machine jobs, which means they’re taken over by grown men.  Odd jobs around town go begging because the paper requirements in terms of insurance, regulation, and permits are too much for any of the quiet guys who used to putter over repairs and improvements.  I delivered papers for a month, which in this town is a driving job -- you can’t walk it because everything is spaced out in big yards.  Pretty soon it was obvious that the start-stop was eating my old pickup.  It has never been more true that one has to have money to make money.
These days even the monsters are mostly machinery.

We have a lot to figure out.  But now the action is in video games where you're the fighter but your biggest danger is spraining your thumb.  At least it doesn't explode your Nikia furniture.  But maybe you should schedule a little running to work off the "hot."

Thursday, October 30, 2014


Tom Sheehan

Tom Sheehan writes in two genres:  template Westerns and poetic encomium.  You could say he's two-fisted.  He writes novels as well, but those are long guns.

The short stories are mostly on  The template is Fifties TV series lasting 45 minutes. The main character is going along.  He is observant, resourceful, and responds to need.  Something unjust happens.  After considerable trouble, possibly the use of weapons, the hero restores order.  The language is old-fashioned, frontier style, and full of poetry disguised as exaggerated folk metaphors.  Very often a boy is involved.  The setting is an integrated virtual world, coherent and derived from (mostly) reading or movies -- entirely believable in terms of the story.  It's like an excellent pocket watch that circumscribes a virtual world, then takes the back off to show the springs and cogs moving the plot along.  We know what will happen, but not quite how, so the puzzle proceeds.

As an example, I’ll just discuss the latest short story, though they all meet the same criteria.  “Chase Holman” is a boy who makes miniature lead soldiers.  He’s kidnapped and the narrator, a trapper named Edward Joseph Dundeen (“Edjo”) who is a Highlander and therefore a moral man, accidentally passes the kidnappers and their victim on his way to “Juice Slattery’s” place to sell the furs on his packstring of mules.  He says, “Juice’d buy a bucket of old grease from me. . .”  But he doesn't realize he saw a kidnapping.

When he gets to town, he learns about the crime. For the mother’s sake (Grace, wearing yellow, who fainted on learning of it so that she was lying there on her back with “them big yellow you-know-whats prouder’n any mountains we ever knowed."  She's elegant and gracious, maybe like Grace Kelly.)  For her sake as well as the generous reward, Edjo sets out to retrieve the boy.  That boy, even when rolled up in a rug and draped over a horse, had the presence of mind to drop one little lead soldier at a time for clues, each little soldier with a personality and role of its own so they become characters in the story.  At the end point, he drops two together outside the hideout of the kidnappers.  The subtext of the story -- which like all Tom's stories creates a virtual world complete in itself -- is the lead soldiers creating a strategy of miniature not-quite-scouts, a virtual world inside the author's world.

Edjo’s mind is on pie.  He says the boy will be back “in his Mom’s kitchen in a matter of hours, having three-minute eggs or a day-long soup off the back end of her stove, sure as shooting.”  Just before the shooting begins, the boy pretends to drop one last little figure and kneels to pick it up, giving Edjo a clear shot at the bad guys. “It was sweet and smooth as eating lemon meringue pie.”

Maybe the best way to explain the poems is to just include one:

The Tom Sheehan Family

(For my father, blind too early.)

The night we listened to an Oglala
life on records, and shadows remembered
their routes up the railed stairway like
a prairie presence, I stood at your bed

counting the days you had conquered.
The bottlecap moon clattered into your
room in vagrant pieces . . . jagged blades
needing strop or wheel for stabbing.

great spearhead chips pale in falling,
necks of smashed jars rasbora bright,
thin flaked edges tossing off the sun.
Under burden of the dread collection,

you sighed and turned in quilted repose
and rolled your hand in mine, searching
for lighting only found in your memory.
In moon’s toss I saw the network of your

brain struggling for my face the way you
last saw it, a piece of light falling under
the hooves of a thousand horse ponies,
night campsites riding upward in flames,

the skyline coming legendary.  is one place to find “Born to Wear the Rags of War” -- difficult to find a better poem for Memorial Day.  It is printed as prose, but is surely poetry celebrating companions -- more than that -- blood brothers in the Korean War, each wearing the rags of war as they rest together where their various "fathers’ sperm has flung them" to defend a motley but beloved nation.  All Souls Day is November 2.  is the location of more poems and insightful comment on them by Laurel Johnson of the Midwest Book Review.  Tom’s dignity, bonded friendships, grand sweep of history interacting with geology, love of strategy, and homely metaphors are appreciated by women in a way that other war poetry is not.  He has a classical mind, tenderly marching through the generations, seeing that he is a link between his father and his sons.

And then there’s this:

“A few years ago we borrowed $60K from a local bank to print a book not yet written. Ten pals each signed a $6k note. It was a book about our hometown, how we wanted to keep what was escaping us, the memories, the fragile memories. We paid the bank off in five months. We sold 2500 copies at $42 each and have a self-sustaining account for scholarships for Saugus High School students. Four kids have been helped in college. It's the John Burns Millennium Book Associates Scholarship. John is 89 years old and was coeditor with me; he was an English teacher in the Saugus school system for 63 years and I know hundreds of people who say he was the best teacher they had at any level. And we wanted to keep our memories intact. The book was called, A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900-2000 .”

This is a way of life that has somehow slipped away, or maybe it’s just that our attention has been diverted by school shootings and football players who are rapists.  People in this Saugus life have histories that go way back, know the big sweeping foundational literary works that Europeans and Americans used to share with pride, and use their rather abundant personal resources to celebrate their heroes.  

But I snapped at Tom when he sent more poems, signing off with the advice to “enjoy.”  “Enjoy” is for pie.  This work is not bakery goods: not sweet, not consumable, not for easy praise, though he admits he’s a “praise eater” who hopes to be told it’s good work and will even go out of his way to find someone (like me) who thinks heroes are good, old friends are a worthy subject, and Massachusetts is a place to live and celebrate.  They make movies about such lives with grand old actors -- Paul Newman or Clint Eastwood -- playing the lead but they are never supposed to be poets.  Thirty-five years at Raytheon Corporation as a writer and analyst” with occasional forays into the wild world of the West or even his family roots in Ireland is a life I can’t even imagine.    Well, I can -- but I imagined it was gone since we're long since past the Fifties.  My hopscotch jobs and aborted careers don’t add up to anything vaguely like Tom’s world, but somehow we meet in print and in an appreciation of this tumbling, story-generating planet.  It’s not a matter of enjoyment because sometimes it’s a racking pain nearly unsurvivable.  Tom doesn’t deny that, meets it with dignity, family, and fine words.  That's praiseworthy.  But would Robert Frost say, "Enjoy?"

Saugus, Massachussetts

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


From Sid's blog

The Gustafson family is very well-known here, not least because Rib -- the patriarch -- has been a veterinarian and force for good over decades.  Two of his sons are vets and one of the vets (Sid Gustafson, a race horse vet) is a writer.  You can find this story at  It’s called simply “Smallpox.”  This time Sid has done nothing less than invent a new genre:  poetic history.

The facts on which this story is based are well-known to me, since I was married to the taxidermist -- not the one in the story, but the one that Sid knew who suggested "Stuf."  This year would have been Bob Scriver’s hundredth birthday.  The historical society baked a cake and put up a temporary exhibit.  

I know this place, Browning, MT, I know the massacre tale (several versions), and I know small lost boys -- I write short stories about them myself.  This one is plainly Sid, but also an idealized version, a mystical imaginary figure, and yet a possibility.  Both Sid and Bob were boys who longed to be Blackfeet somehow, maybe only through soul-affinity.  The writing here is like a lot of sci-fi/fantasy poetry, ennobling “plain” history and plot line with grand sweeps of poetry as strong as Browning wind.

Let’s be clear.  Malcolm Clark’s death was not alleged but actual and his daughters were nothing like the ones in this story, though I love the idea of one of them having a walrus tusk for a pegleg.  There are real families named “Bird” and “Butterfly,” but it’s risky to use real names, even Sherburne.  Still, I’d have liked to see Sid use Frank Sherburne in his story, since that was the son who sort of “went native.”  Most of this history seems to be based on oral tales rather than library research, but that’s okay so long as the two aren’t confused.  Probably he knows the people whose names he’s borrowed, so they will only laugh.

This is a universal classic plot line: a found strange boy who turns out to be the savior everyone has longed for.  (Yah, maybe Xian -- so?)  People with this story in their hearts turn up on every reservation by the dozens, meaning well, escaping from crushing civilization whether military, academic, medical or family.  They come, sit on the "barren porch" and wait to be recognized.  (I love that Sid put in a dog.  I always try to put a dog in every story about Indians.  Sid and I know that Bob often kept a badger for a pet and treated it like a dog.)  

Most of the time no one notices, so the would-be hero sighs and goes on.  Once in a while someone fits in, with deep commitment, and becomes a member of the community.  (Sid and I are peripheral, but we pay attention.)  The girls often get distracted by the romance of it all and end up leaving, pregnant and crying.  Some of the others get high on drugs or politics.  But that’s not what this story is about.  It’s about potential -- what might happen, a beginning.

Strong Blackfeet Women

This story addresses another pattern which is older women, opinionated and forceful, who take hold of situations and try to resolve them.  (Not me.  I just sit here and think.)  But most recently this has been especially strong in the actual dynamics of the rez, even expressing itself in the new organization called Issksiniip which is a group of emergency responders that come to families in crisis of some kind.   Betty Cooper and Theda New Breast, mother and daughter, are part of this turnaround, this rebound, this renewal.  Here’s the link to a video called “Why the Women in my Family Don’t Drink Whiskey”  that Theda made:  Just google to find a mountain of material.

Sid’s short story, “Smallpox” is a different approach to the same idea.  He’s a major fan of “Jimmie” Schultz, otherwise known as James Willard Schultz, who wrote those beguiling adventure tales (“Why Gone Those Times?”) and lived on the rez with a Blackfeet wife and her mother, whom he loved also.  His grave is above the Gustafson ranch, on a ridge overlooking the river, and Sid goes up now and then to clear away weeds and whatever debris has collected.  This story, like Schultz’s imaginings, is romantic and unrealistic, but also at a different level, quite true -- MORE than true.

Part of the magic is relating to the compass points, which are why Blackfeet stories and songs and so on are based on FOUR rather than THREE, and the star patterns, which are given their European constellation names by Stuf.  The 19th century details also help, but it is the beginning of the 20th that is his designated time (“manifest” as in “manifest destiny”).  “Stuf stared starward.  Maybe it was too early in the night.  The medicine man Many White Horses had told him to watch the sky; that a comet approached.  There, a wisp off Cassiopeia’s chair.  He looked harder, wishing for new spectacles.  The faraway galaxy Andromeda twinkled in the wetness of his eyes.  Andromeda and not a comet.  The woman sighed.”

Sid has a difficulty to overcome when he invokes the mounted animals in Stuf’s shop.  The practice of re-animating dead animals by gluing hides onto paper maché sculptured shells and adding glass eyes was once admired (still is in some circles).  But my dentist was just ordered to remove all his mounted heads from his office because they were “creepy” and maybe contagious in some way.  Sid and his dad often came to the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife and Sid as a child responded to the magic illusion innocently.  They tell me that taxidermy is coming back, but as a sort of Victorian sentimental joke -- small animals in human clothes doing human things.  I consider that disrespectful and demeaning of the animals.  In fact, Bob felt that bronze sculptures were MORE realistic than the taxidermy.

The Blackfeet Bundles (in fact, all the prairie tribe Bundles) were based on tobacco-smoking pipes, but beyond that they contained a sort of “hymnal” of animal skins, not recreations of the animals but mnemonic devices for the qualities and powers of the creatures themselves.  Each, wrapped like a baby in calico, is called with a dance and song.  In the old-time people this would open memories of encounters with the real animals.

This is a story of reconciliation after great tragedy.  Small devices like the personal “handgame” with the Medicine Man that ends up with “Buffalo Heart” disclosing one hand holding a black and a white buffalo together is inspired.  But it’s clear that Sid hasn’t seen a Beaver Bundle: they are massive, so much so that one needs a horse to carry them.  Such a Bundle couldn’t have been transported easily in the Dog Days before the horses came.  For Buffalo Heart to die after his vision is a bit over-the-top, a distraction.

Towards the end of the story Sid introduces a little song:

“What will become of a boy as light as he?
As light as me,
A boy as white and alone as me
Arrived here from the land of the Cree.”

I hope someone gives it a tune and appends it as an mp3 to this multidimensional story so that it is multi-media.  Sid’s brother is “Fingers” Ray, a musician.

Times of change are lethal for boys.  A friend of mine tries to pull boys from the streets back to life.  His short story would be called “AIDS.”   Anyway, he makes videos as Theda does but far more phantasmagorical and transgressive and it is the boys who write the poems.

I would like to see this story as a stand-alone book that a boy could carry and study, whether or not he was indigenous.  Sid has his fingers on a pulse and hears the hearts of boys as well as those of horses.

Sid Gustafson feels the pulse in the throat of a horse.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


One of my thesis examples of rituals of EXPERIENCE rather than prescribed liturgy is the case of the dead groom.  He had been killed in an auto accident on the way to the wedding, only hours before the scheduled rite.  The pastor, who was in a liturgical tradition, was presented with the dilemma of the bride's grief.  In the tradition of this conservative family, marriage was a divinely sanctioned and life-altering ceremony of commitment.  It was a transition into the rest of life.  The bride wished to complete this ceremony, feeling that her commitment to this man was not lessened by death, since God’s inclusive and eternal life are promised by Christianity and marriage is part of that.  

The first question was whether to go along with this -- or whether it was some macabre and irrational idea.  In the end, with the help of the family, it was understood that the marriage ceremony was the completion of a trajectory from dating, to friendship, to engagement, to marriage, but that the bride was not crazy.  She didn’t expect to take the body on a honeymoon.  But she needed completion of intention of marriage in order to stay centered.

Even dead people sometimes need a place to sit.

The next question was what sort of ceremony.  First, it was agreed that it would be entirely private with no witnesses.  The governmental requirements of the license could not be completed anyway since from the legal standpoint the person who bought the license didn’t exist any longer.  This was a Christian religious ceremony.  God would be present.  The bride wanted to wear her dress and exchange rings, but she didn’t ask for the full traditional ceremony in the sanctuary.  There was some concern that she might be overcome by emotion, maybe even faint and there was no way to predict the behavior of others.

However, the pastor wore his formal vestments.  The ceremony he partly adapted and partly improvised was done with the body present.  This couple had been members of this congregation for years and there had been considerable counseling about their beliefs and desires while preparing for marriage.  The pastor could draw on a body of familiar and well-loved material that the bride had shared with the groom.  After the rings had been exchanged, the pastor simply put a hand on each head, one living and one dead, and blessed them.  He withdrew off to the side for a few moments to leave the bride to absorb what had just happened and to feel completion if it had worked.  It did.  From then on the preparation for the funeral was conventional.

There’s a famous story recounted by Clifford Geertz when he was working as an anthropologist in SE Asia.  The area was in transition between a traditional religious system and people who were converting to a new one.  There was a death but the man had been between systems: neither the old nor the new.  No one knew what to do, so the dead man could not be buried.  Finally Geertz stepped in, suggesting a ceremony that was simple but didn’t contradict either system.

Now here’s a family story with long-lasting consequences.  About the time of my paternal grandmother’s death my mother and my paternal aunt (my father’s sister) fell into resentment of each other but neither exactly understood why.   They just had the feelings.  There was no one who could recognize and interpret them.

Half a century later, full of myself, I tried to explain my own version of what had happened, a matter of underlying assumptions about the role of women.  The aunt’s daughter misunderstood and was scandalized by what she thought I said.  She has not had the long consciousness-raising that I've had.  She thought I said her mother broke up my mother's marriage.

My aunt dressed for graduation from higher education.
She had earned a Certificate in Domestic Science.

My father’s family was Scots, secular, immigrant, and homesteaders on the prairie.  They were not “churchy,” but rather “prairie humanists” with a strong progressive bent. They believed in cooperation -- as in the prairie wheat board co-ops -- as the key to progress, but were quite guarded as a family.  Archibald, the great-grandfather who had instigated the migration, was of the sort who felt a man with opportunity (like democracy) could rise to the equivalent of the heights of the class structures that dominated Britain.  The family understanding of itself as superior was essentially a mix of Scots belief in education and English recognition of middle class respectability.  That is, “presentation.”  Manners. Reputation.  Conventional behavior.

There were four sibs, three boys and a girl.  (Actually, the firstborn didn’t survive or there would have been five.)  My aunt was beautiful: blonde, talented, carefully groomed.  Her brothers felt she was a “lady,” a treasure to be protected, and she was.  Not that she wasn’t capable of hard work.  She helped build a house.  She was also a painter of delicate pictures and adept at sewing and embellishment.

My maternal grandmother is standing in the middle of the front row.
The army nurse-to-be is on the left end of the back row.  The sheep rancher's wife is second from the right in the back row.
I think my mother must have been the photographer.

My mother’s side was more Irish with a history going back into the settlement of Kentucky.  Again there were four sibs but all girls.  One was killed in an auto accident, one became an army nurse stationed in Rheims and Oxford during WWII, and one was a ranch wife on a sheep farm where she helped deliver lambs.  These girls were taught they were as good as any boys, which is what their father had really wanted.  They could drive a nail or plow a field of corn, but always understood that boys would be better.  My mother’s education was interrupted by the Depression.  My father’s career and general mental health was badly damaged by a car crash in 1948.  When my mother saw my father was not going to sustain the family, she went back to school and got her teaching certificate.  From then on she taught, put me through college, and more or less supported the family.

What I tried to explain was that the two women, my mother and her sister-in-law, had style differences derived from family beliefs about what a woman was and how they ought to be treated.  When my mother went back to school, my father felt pushed out.  He began to withdraw, comforting himself with books, cameras and records.  But also relying more on his relationship to his birth family, esp. the idea that he was a hero taking care of a lady, first his mother and then his sister.  He would visit them secretly.

My mother raised 80 acres of corn with this leased mule.
She didn't quite make enough money for a year's college tuition.
She was a math major at Albany College which became Lewis & Clark.

My mother felt him moving away from us.  There was no understanding of what a pre-frontal cortex trauma would do.  He was a traveling man, on the road all week.  The story was that he loved being on the road, preferred it.  But maybe he only preferred it to home.  I think his sister felt his unhappiness and tried to reassure him of his manliness, while my mother began to worry about desertion on some secret level.  She buried my father from her Presbyterian home church in Portland, though he was never a member of any church, and worried what she might find when his belongings were sorted.  Maybe a second wife.  There was none, but there was no connection with his birth family after that.

My cousin and I are retired old ladies now -- she’s firmly married, I’ve been divorced and on my own for decades.  She lives in the house she grew up in. She has never attended church but her husband does.  Her husband lost all his money so they are dependent on what she made during years she taught grade school, but he compensates by doing all the shopping and cooking, a role that would never have occurred to my father.  She and her mother were “agoraphobic” which the cousin calls "shy", insisting that she herself is simply “private.”  The aunt died after years of dementia.

My mother is also dead, sharp right up to the moment of death at home, and proud of her participation in Portland events.  I say I’m a recluse, but I attend almost every town meeting.  I'm cloistered in order to write, in keyboard contact with dozens of people.

The style difference -- as hard to decipher as the bride trying to complete her marriage or the people in Geertz’ village trying to figure out a proper burial -- is between two understandings of my father, but also two different understandings of what a woman should expect.  Is a woman a “lady” to be romantically cherished or is a woman a support and backup system as good as a man?  (In his latest years my father called my mother “Mommy,” which drove her crazy.)

On the cusp of a shift (1950)

These are the things that ideally should be resolved before two people commit to each other.  It hardly matters whether they are same sex or not.  Are they on the same wavelength when it comes to core expectations?  Not just at the level of conventional expectations (there are conventional expectations even of same sex couples or polygamist marriages) but about what a person essentially is.

My cousin jumped to the idea that there was something sexual in our mothers’ rivalry, that I was accusing my aunt of breaking up my parents’ marriage.   The sex snake wiggles into everything.  The naive little old ladies around here used to be puzzled by what gay men “did” in marriage, because to them it meant entitlement to reproductive sex.  I think by now they’ve been enlightened.  But recently I watched a video about a woman who “married herself,” with a dress, a ceremony, and a party, and afterwards another innocent asked,  “But what will she do for sex?  You can’t have sex with yourself!”   We have a lot of education to do, especially on the level of subconscious assumptions. 

Grace Gelder, who married herself.

Monday, October 27, 2014


At present I am reading, rereading, underlining, high-lighting, dog-earing and cross-referencing two books about the implications of the new neuro-research.  

“The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience” by Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull (2002)  Intro by Oliver Sacks.

The Emotional Brain: the Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life” by Joseph LeDoux (1996)

This is so absorbing for a number of reasons, as follows:

My understanding of religion has come to be that it is survival-based in the sense of Ray Rappaport’s basic understanding of survival being between two “shores” of dynamic behavior. “Religion” is a thermostat-like category of guiding beliefs recommending the main channel of culture and warning against the dangers of the edges.  It is also a way of reconciling the contradictions between the survival of the individual and the survival of the cultural group.  (It also carries and conserves cultural evolution.)

How nonconformist can a person be without the culture legitimately destroying that individual?   Conversely a recent Pico Iyer essay (link above) asks just how unconventional, anti-social, iconoclastic, or offensive can a writer be in the interest of enlightenment?

This vid is not on that subject but is a good intro to his thought.  It points to the death of nations as a sort of religious patriotism.

On the other hand, how can a cultural group demand the death or criminalization of an individual who doesn’t really endanger the group or whose “crime” is simply a convenient opinion of the group.  (“Islam is bad.”)  When is it legitimate for one group to try to destroy another group, killing many individuals in a genocide?  How is it that small terrorist groups think they can persuade the global culture to change by killing individuals?


Quite apart from religious institutions interwoven with national cultures, I am interested in the “spiritual” which I approach through Victor Turner’s idea of “liminality” and Eliade’s definition of hierophany, the felt sacred.  What is it that happens in the brain?  Can it be caused at will?  How does this relate to formal religious institutions, which can be interpreted as a form of theatre.  I’m composing a “handbook” of ideas.

On a personal level, family matters have involved brain trauma that affected behavior I’d like to understand.  As well, I sometimes find my own dynamics surprising to myself (!) and I’m beginning to watch for signs of aging that might mean changing strategies.

U of Chicago Div School population

On a social level several groups hold my interest.  One is the loose community of Blackfeet and other residents of the rez.  (53 years duration) Another is the small and rather arrogant denomination of Unitarian Universalists who ordained me (39 years).  To what insights and obligations should I respond?  This last keys into the U of Chicago Div School, which addresses cultural religious methods and universals.  The Div School, so far as I know, has not addressed neurotheory.  A subset is the rising concern about who should BE a minister.  (Should I have been ordained?)  

The most recent compelling demographic is discarded and abused boys (7 years duration).  This is also the most urgent group since so many are being damaged and killed.

As a thinking strategy, I am opposed to dichotomies, unless by interacting they create a range of results.  Thesis-antithesis= a panorama of possibilities.  I didn’t know until this morning that Kinsey posited SIX possible positions between exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality.  (I was reading a discussion of Charles Blow’s bold and provocative new book, “Fire Shut Up in my Bones.”)  Only six?  I would suggest hundreds when one considers a range of situations, a range of personalities, a range of genital and genetic possibilities.  

Neuro-research, whether it is studying brain lesions or behavior algorithms, at least interacts with everything because it is our instrument.  In fact, Solms says explicitly that the brain is the organ that evolved to manage the interface between the insides of creatures and the outside environment, what I call “in-skin” v. “out-skin.”  That’s its job and whatever in the brain helps that constant reconciliation and readjustment is going to keep the creature surviving between the banks of flowing life.  The instrument must grow as it works, and -- in fact -- that’s what it does, with the larger result being the growth and survival of the culture.  The planet moves -- it is a dance.

What’s particularly interesting about neuro-research, apart from the excitement of always finding new little brain bits with special processing abilities, is that it is demonstrable on a computer screen.  One ends up with a map instead of philosophical categories based on introspection.  Sometimes behavior that has seemed learned or automatic reflex turns out to be quite different in the way it works in the brain.

Like the shift from thinking of species in terms of the way they look and act to focusing on the internal codes of their DNA and how they unfold from previous species, this new way of looking at human thought and action demands new definitions for old words, as  well as entirely new words.  Emotions that are not what we thought they were or that are lumped together, turn out to need a whole new reframing.

For instance, to tie this post together, one of my nuclear family's problems was unpredictable violent behavior after trauma to the pre-frontal cortex.  Brain research lays out the terrain this way:  there are different KINDS of aggression that go through quite different pathways.  Solms describes the RAGE (including anger) SYSTEM.  (There is no “rage button” but rather a sequence of interactions.)

This form of arousal is usually frustration-based when goal-directed actions are thwarted.”  . . . “The RAGE system is associated with only one of them: so-called “hot” aggression.  The “cold” type of aggression, associated mainly with predatory behavior, has little to do with feelings of anger or rage: rather, [rage or hot aggression] has to do with appetitive seeking and is therefore driven by the dopaminergic system described above.”   (Underlining substitutes for Solms’ italics in the original.) This was my father, my brother, and my husband: hot-heads who expected much of themselves -- more than they could deliver -- in part because the family expected (sometimes demanded) a lot from them.  After their brain damage they were always a bit disabled in their ability to think and perform.  They couldn’t understand why. They became frustrated and the energy exploded.  (My father stopped when we kids became too old to spank.  My husband stopped as a result of his second divorce.  But then the same forces turned in on them with bad results: depression, high blood pressure.)  

Solms says, anger/rage “has to do with appetitive seeking and is therefore driven by the dopaminergic system.”  That is, this ancient kind of rage comes from desire for basic survival -- like seeking for food or defending territory or belonging to family.  For instance, those wild demonstrations of emotion that chimpanzees can make by whooping and slashing the air with branches.  A subset is “irritability” that arises with constant small frustrations (road rage) but rarely the major challenges that the system evolved to meet.

On trial for cold-blooded murder

Then comes Solms’ really chilling message.  “There is a third variety of aggression associated with male dominance behavior.  Wiki defines it this way:  Dominance in the context of biology and anthropology is the state of having high social status relative to one or more other individuals, who react submissively to dominant individuals.”  Frustration has nothing to do with it -- they are successful in reaching their goals simply by menacing, being Alpha.  

Solms goes on:  “Neurobiologists classify this type of aggression with the ‘social emotions,’ . . .The fact that aggression has at least two different neural substrates must have some important implications for psychopathology (for forensic psychology and psychiatry).”  I will be searching for more research about this.  I see it as the basis for abuse of children and women by high-ranking men (including Euro-big shots); as torture-based terrorism by men focused on “respect”; as stud-behavior in herds; and as the felt entitlement of killers of all sorts.  It fascinates us, not just because of the danger, but also because dominant persons are magnetic, in the way that lions attract satellite carrion-eaters.  

Michael Douglas portraying Gordon Gecko

But a true dominant has to really BE recognizably dominant, not just controlling or demanding or even violent.  It has nothing to do with species except that among humans it can be complex.  There are not many true dominants.  Sometimes they are described as “cold” and “amoral,” but I’ve met a few animals that were wired that way as individuals -- not as a species.  Testosterone may have something to do with it, but it’s not just sexual.  Think Gordon Gecko.  Think God and Lucifer.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Scene of the Marias Massacre

The rez kids I know best are the ones I taught fifty years ago, which was about a hundred years after the last massacre, when a whole band under the leadership of Heavy Runner who was at peace with whites and had a certificate to prove it (the way Ebola survivors are given certificates) were destroyed by US Cavalry because by chance they had camped in the wrong place along the Marias River. Nowadays Blackfeet activists certify their provenance by descent from the survivors of that atrocity. Or some others will claim they are descendants of Kipp, one of the scouts. And last week the tribal people of America received US settlement checks for mismanaging their assets in “trust.” Cobell is the name of the settlement — it was also the name of the other scout.

Frank Waln, Sioux rapper This video is not about Blackfeet, but rather about their 19th century enemies, the Sioux. The line between the two powerful buffalo-hunting tribes moved back and forth, in tension between the Sweetgrass Hills and the Black Hills, both sacred. The vid is the descendant of more modern social movements: not the uprisings or the long marches or the killings of women and children. Rather it comes out of the environmental movement rallies, huge rock concerts, the steady trickle of movies trying to be authentic that has created a casting book of Native American actors, the international powwows that include all indigenous people (even Hawaiians and Maoris), the t-shirt industry that finances travel, Disneyland in Paris that has an ongoing dance show, and the internet — because now kids all have cell phones and many have smart phones. These are the children of AIM leaders and Will Sampson. Misty Upham probably knew them personally, but she didn’t dance. She just had connections.

Galen Upham was one of my students. He wrote. Marvin Weatherwax was one of my students. He is a college professor. Woody Kipp was never my student. He was a journalist and now a college professor. Darrell Kipp was never my student. He went to Harvard (Harvard likes Indians) and Goddard (Goddard likes Indians) and was one of the founders of the Immersion School movement at the Piegan Institute. Galen and Darrell have gone on ahead. Marvin and Woody are still at Blackfeet Tribal Community College which against all odds has put down roots and thrived, just like all the others across the country.

The first rez rapper I knew was Jonathon Heavy Runner, free lance spontaneous classroom disrupter. He’s a calm productive guy now, probably a grandpa. Last time I saw him was accidentally on the street in front of the Valier bank where he was going in to do business. His pickup was full of kids who called him “dad.”

In the Sixties I was the dramatics teacher and wrote plays for the kids to be in, so that there would be a part for each one of them and they hardly had to act, since the character was written around them. One of the actors was Curly Bear Wagner, who became a kind of shaman/historian, but in high school he kept going fishing instead of attending rehearsals so we finally gave up on him and wrote his part out of the play. You can do that when you wrote the play in the first place. It changed the plot a little bit.

Recently Robey Clark asked me if I remembered the play in which he had to kill a mortally injured puppy — a puppet I made out of a Salvation Army Persian lamb coat. He was supposed to hit it with a mallet while another student yelped and cried offstage, but the sound effects didn’t stop, so the pounding went a little long. We took the play to State Thespian competition in Missoula and were praised but not given a prize.

The next year we took a Western version of “Taming of the Shrew” to State Thespian competition at the Brewery Theatre in Helena and were praised, but still no prize. I was the fool that time around. I confused the calendar and we took the school bus down a week ahead of time. The superintendent refused to send out the bus again at the right time, so we convoyed in old bomb rez cars. Show biz is important. No one can keep you down if you really want the show to go on. I was surprised by how easy it was to slip Elizabethan English over into cowboy slang. The scripts for this stuff are still around somewhere in my papers.

Eventually there were champion dancers who went to France, but at that time they were still little kids. The founder of the Black Lodge Singers, Kenny Scabby Robe, hadn’t yet started the family that became the core of the prize-winning group. The Blackfeet trick riders who make Westerns exciting were still just kids zooming around bareback on whatever horse they could find. The thing about kids is that they’re all potential and you can’t tell how they will turn out. More than that, you have no idea what the world will be like when they come of age. No one even dreamed of video. Or computers or the way YouTube could go viral. No one suspected that someone would start a newspaper called “Indian Country Today” and that it would be sold in the supermarket alongside “People” magazine.

The recent Marysville school shooting looks quite different from their point of view. Marysville is where my mother grew up, before there was a Muckleshoot reservation. She was white and told not to go near Indians, so she watched them, kneeling at her bedroom window while they set up camp to harvest crops not far away. “Sing your songs loud and pray hard for the Fryberg family, Tulalip Tribe, Marysville community and all those who knew Jaylen,” Chief Seattle Club program manager Caleb Dunlap wrote on Facebook. “. . . If you are sad, mad, confused or experiencing any other forms of grief, turn to your songs, medicines, prayers, elders [and] loved ones.”

Fifty years ago kids were encouraged to be assimilated. They didn’t know any songs, medicines, prayers. Their loved ones might be drunk or violent. No kids shot other kids because they had no guns. They used knives. In summer when the residential schools were on vacation, elders were raising them out on the allotments, but the kids never stayed indoors in those days. Down along the creeks in the coulees it was just luck if you could get AM radio. There were no rock concerts because Elvis Presley was just beginning to be on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Native American Literary Renaissance hadn’t happened yet. The main thing was basketball. (You had to cut your braids off to play.) The main thing is STILL basketball! But also college, amphitheatre shows, and the Internet. It’s all still hoop dancing. Sometimes traditional. Sometimes not.


Rave This video is traditional, both the oratory and the dancing.  The rap not so much.

This version is Hollywood. It’s all connected. The world is round. And spinning.