Monday, April 30, 2018


My mother on the left.  She had not had proper wedding herself,
because her father was opposed to my father 
who had declared he was an atheist.

No doubt the Sixties in the US were just as corrupt as today, but we went along in ignorant bliss with a handsome president until he was assassinated in front of our eyes.  Then another, then another, killed.  Failed invasions, Vietnam, and all the rest.  Riots in the streets, going to the moon.   But it was only background to me.  On the Blackfeet reservation I was living an even more dramatic life than I would have in the early Peace Corps, where my peers enlisted.

It’s impossible to think how any other 21-year-old woman could have sat in Blackfeet ceremonies, poured molten bronze, herded bison, horseback-hunted in sub-zero snow along the Rockies, and equally scary challenges without questioning.  The hard part was the daily maintenance of the sculpture business and in summer the forced pleasing of visitors.  I thought it was wildly romantic and a life-changing privilege and I was right.

Many years later an old rancher said to me, “I always thought Scriver was too hard on his women.”  In comparison to the contemporary complaints about minor offenses, I should have been outraged by the put-down assumptions and the casual abuse.  I didn’t even notice.  My “thing” was being tough and obedient.  I was a fourteen-year-old boy.  I sneered at women and identified myself with the tribal people, who didn’t return the idea.

This life lasted a decade and the end was miserable for a peculiar reason: we got married at my insistence.  In Bob that triggered every misery of his two previous marriages:  infidelity, being “owned,” losing his local reputation, becoming dependent on a person who used it against him.  I became bewildered, then exhausted, then depressed, which I described as “having the flu.”  

Looking back, a doc gave me “speed” to lose weed, but to his credit when I weighed the same (145 as opposed to today’s 190) he told me to get out and not come back.  Over the counter one could take Scopolamine (today’s street name:  “Devil’s Breath”) which was supposed to make one calm and agreeable.  It didn’t.  Everyone there used alcohol as a drug but it didn’t work for me.

In the beginning I was the one who researched and made contacts.  I had no phone, no car, couldn’t drive, lived separately but slept part of the night with Bob.  He taught me to drive, paid the bills, fed me at caf├ęs, and told me stories, as did his dad, who came in 1903.  He took me along to visit old tribal people and to paint plein aire.  He took me to St. Paul to learn to patine, which is not easy, and I kept the shop records but not the real books.  I never knew how much money he made, even when we married.  I was marginally aware that he sometimes had to have help from his mother, who had inherited a modest estate from her Quebec family.  His brother expressed contempt for him.

Bob began to send me on long desperate solitary drives, like delivering bronzes to Cody, Wyoming, in a road-closing blizzard.  He had had a heart attack so couldn’t.  I fully expected to die in the attempt and the Cody staff was both indignant and admiring.

When I left, I took almost nothing.  He was terrified that I would wipe him out, but at that time the law favored men and was designed to preserve the integrity of ranches.  I signed papers but didn't attend court.  Now there is an automatic proportion of income that is allotted to the woman depending on the length of the marriage, up to half.  

Early after the marriage he sold the entire rodeo series to Calgary for enough money to buy the ranch that became the Blackfeet Land Resource shared with the Nature Conservancy.  I had loved more the previous little ranch on Two Medicine where I spent the winter alone just after the divorce.  Bob brought me groceries and at Christmas his mother made him give me the little old red van I’d habitually driven, but the road wasn’t paved and I went nowhere until spring when I returned to the school district.

During this decade everything local changed subtly.  The feds closed down the town law enforcement, which had been started by the white merchants after WWII when things went wild.  They left the tribal system but dominated it.  The BIA went to Indian Preference, which meant the white bureaucrats left.  The white businessmen who had come after WWII were now ready to retire but there were no heirs, so they locked the door and left empty buildings.  The bank closed.  The ranchers who married tribal women so they had access to allotted land did not leave, because their children inherited and stayed, but they began to think about college.

A small circle of progressive youngsters, including Eloise Cobell, also began to think about college though not everyone attended.  Darrell Kipp went to Billings, then Goddard, then Harvard, and used both his knowledge and contacts to return home and change everything so that people who had been afraid to speak Blackfeet now understood Kipp’s immersion Blackfeet language school which was quite different from old Joe Kipp’s empire.  Darrell was genetically a Heavyrunner anyway, adopted by Kipp out of shame for guiding the soldiers who killed most of the Heavyrunner band.  The distance in terms of time was about a century, which is fast.

I was sympathetic because Bob truly wanted to be a Blackfeet, horrifying his mother who was Edwardian in her worldview.  She thought of “Indians” as a kind of French.  I knew them through the ceremonies where they were people born in the 1880’s who kept their doin’s secret, through the slobbering mindless drunks that Bob tried as the City Magistrate, through the clever students who found ways to survival and then significance, and through the stories of the first decade of the century when the mercantile stores were just new versions of fur trading posts.  I knew several kinds of tribal women and they sized me up quietly for later alliances.

There were other lives after this — animal control, Divinity school, circuit-riding, municipal civil service, and twenty years of writing — ten of them in cahoots with a renegade.  The world changed around all this so that what a thing once meant became something else entirely, but I was always committed to the story of it all.  I didn’t want money.  Publishing became impossible anyway.  I was able to “return home,” and here I am.  But I’m not the same.  And neither is the world.

Sunday, April 29, 2018


The University of Chicago Divinity School

Not long ago a former classmate from seminary days sent me an email.  The lede was “Hey, you’re not dead after all!  The rest of the message was the long sad tale of a man convinced he was meant to be a major figure of civilization if he could just stay out of trouble, which he cannot.  I’m unclear what he thought I had to do with it, but I tried to be consoling until I decided to go for honesty.  I was remembering the times I asked him what he was working on and was told I wasn’t smart enough to understand it.  What’s the name of that woman-hating organization?  (Incel)

Anyway, I remarked mildly that he seemed to have really bought into the conviction that old white men with academic credentials and booming voices are better than everyone else and ought to be recognized as such.  It was either what I said or the fact that about then one of his multiple former wives called him to say that he had just been sent tens of thousands of dollars from some forgotten investment or arrangement.  Anyway, that’s the last I’ve heard from him.

This conviction that any historical, sociological, high status realm is in fact “real” and therefore permanent is being demolished today, though a few remnants of yesterday are trying desperately to hold onto their idea of what Washington DC is like.  Corrupt, power-mongering, male, white and ignorant is what these people see and feel they are entitled to run because that’s what they’re like.

Thinking about this “meta” idea of realms and worlds constructed from TV programs and a partial knowledge of the world, I happened on “Westworld,” the TV series.  As I say often, with God dead we must reconsider what humans are.  What is a person?  What is a reality?  Does any of it matter anyway?

After watching three episodes of “Westworld” on DVD, I discovered that the original movie was on YouTube for free.  I had never known that the main character was played by Richard Benjamin who was a classmate of mine during a far earlier incarnation in "TheatreWorld" at NU at the beginning of the Sixties.  (The movie is 1973.)  I was scared of him because he was so formidably intelligent, smarter than my seminary friend, and a master of comedy.  The movie is quite different from the vid series.  There are multiple “worlds” and the scientific paradigm is NASA rather than a neurology research lab with enough money for a lot of glass walls.  When the old "Westword" fails, the pattern is a space ship crash.   

This projectory counts more than the performer v. participant paradigm.  The movie — until the end — plays the mundane (putting on socks) and funny (a battery operated snake) against some scarier.  The sound track is jokey banjos, there is smoking but no nudity, the Benjamin character has performance anxiety about fucking a robot, and the control machinery looks more like a sound board than computer controls.  Brolin’s comedy is more subtle: he sounds like John Wayne.  Then there’s Yul Brynner, straight out of “The Magnificent Seven” with his inimitable hint of Mongolian steppes.

There’s a sequence towards the end in a Roman garden that makes a statue cry at the loss of Roman civilization, that decline and fall.  The vid series has moved to something else.  Far more philosophical and far from jokey, the story begins "Star Trek" and ends as Cormac McCarthy.  It is meant to shock.  (If that's possible these days.)  And to be endless — it’s a series.

These visual concepts illustrate how I see my seminary friend’s dilemma (shared with legislators) of desperation to preserve status and wealth in a world that forces them to look at creature horror — blood and guts and starvation — that is their assigned task.  They are able to do it because to them “all these others” are no more real than robots.  The Others deserve no sympathy, protection, or support.  Even the ones who are American.  Then the House fires their exemplary Jesuit chaplain.  Who's safe?  No one.

An all-time human puzzle is the relationship between the “Others” and those we consider part of our world.  And “our world” is always partial, whether it is the fantasy of the “old West,” the Broadway theatre, the high seas, the military, gays, or academia.  Meanwhile, the gritty reality of most worlds is coming apart, largely because of the empowerment of the “Others” who were engaged while those who took their world for granted were bored enough to get lost in anodynes.  This is as true of the ministry as of the Mafia.  

True enough, there are many outdated false flags and sentimental greeting card slogans.  (They count more than payoffs if you’re stingy with money.)  “The most beautiful chocolate cake you ever saw!”  The family, mom, birthdays, red hats with embroidery.  Most of them are as left-over and irrelevant as the fake frontier towns the movies have used for a century — all front.  It’s interesting that the two “poles” of wisdom are played by old men: Ed Harris (Death) and Anthony Hopkins (Philosophy).  Jeffrey Wright, who is black, plays the rational one who looks at practicality.  He IS an “Other” even when he’s not playing Basquiat, who is about as other as it gets.  (The women are gorgeous and pretty irrelevant.)

“Realms” and “worlds” are the environmental aspect of identity — who you are is largely dependent on where you are and what you’re doing.  My seminary friend was sometimes where he was considered a minister, but he didn’t always act like a minister.  The second series of Westworld is called “Chaos Takes Control.”  That’s where we Americans are — without government leaders, in disrepute among nations, closing down most institutions on grounds that they aren’t making money.  I’d watch it except that it means offering my name and so on for the endless data lists that form the algorithms of mercantile life.

The ultimate meta for the Westworld series is the writer’s room, which may not have been part of public consciousness in 1973, certainly not as in this constantly morphing interaction that began in 1973 when computers could adapt the story as necessary.  In today’s writers' room, as I insist, the people at the table argue over what should happen, and what they decide can control the behavior of many.

In 1973 I was just leaving a particular “westworld” which was also “rezworld” focused on a whole population of Others.  The infrastructure and personalities of the previous decades still lingered, but we knew they were ending.  It’s terrifying.  I thought then that the escape was “intellectual world” as created on the U of Chicago campus with its stone quadrangles and reading lists.  I was right in the sense that it introduced many “meta” concepts, so that whatever temporary realm is created by economics, populations, and climate can be seen as temporary but responding to eternal principles.  Well — until the destruction of the human species.

Saturday, April 28, 2018


Eloise Cobell

My credentials for talking about Eloise Cobell include teaching her husband Turk in English class in the Sixties, teaching with her sister Julene in Heart Butte ’89-91, walking with the family on Ernie Cobell’s memorial giveaway at North American Indian Days, sipping “red beer” with a group of powerful tribal women in someone’s kitchen on a Friday after school (I’m pretty sure Eloise was there), and taking the tour of Bob Scriver’s “Flatiron Ranch” before it became the Blackfeet Land Trust and then eventually Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary.  It was named in Eloise’s honor and it was she who figured out how to arrange the legalities.

This video talks about a vid describing Eloise’s life, but it is actually a taping of a discussion after a showing of the movie.  Included were:

-Terry Tatsey, Blackfeet Nation Vice-Chairman
-Loren BirdRattler, ARMP Project Manager 
-Helen Augare-Carlson, Blackfeet Community College - Native Science Field Center Director
-Mark Magee, Blackfeet Land Department Director and Board Chairman for the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust

These people are a little too young for me to have known them personally, and maybe also too respectable and achieving, because when the Blackfeet became this eloquent and hip, I got out of the way.  (I knew the rebels and drunks from the Sixties a little better.)  In fact, I was gone after 1973 except for two episodes of a few years.  But I knew their families as highly respected, achieving, and thoughtful.  They were progressive participants, much respected.

In the last two posts I talked about the two cultures confronting each other across the Marias River, one distinctively dark, oral, and poor.  The other born white, from back east, infused with European values, and governmentally in charge.  In fact, each side had a core group that represented them.  In a key water document commissioned by the tribe, Michael F. Folly (a lawyer) identifies by name the white ring of rich and powerful white people who collaborated the same as the 1% does today.  (“An Historical Analysis of the Administration of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation by the United States, 1855 to 1950’s.  Indian Claims Commission, Docket Number 279-D  As far as I know, this report exists only as a fat xerox copy.)

Less often discussed is a group of older men often appearing in formal photos wearing their white buckskin suits (matched beading) and Sioux fan-style headdressses.  The relationships among them were casual, political, and had nothing to do with the formal tribal council.  But they glamorously represented the People and kept tight hold on the old days.

These two groups had little to do with each other in some ways, but were rolled into relationship when the Blackfeet began to realize what the “rule of law” was and why it was important.  They had always depended on discussion among themselves, talking until the point of consensus.  Few were literate, so they signed documents with the traditional X.  Many white entities didn’t bother to sign, since they were never challenged.

But the point of the rule of law is that it provides stability and that predictability makes progress possible as a value, because it is the tool of organizational design — the infrastructure of a society.  This panel in the vid consciously speaks of the groups and contexts, the actual “place” and institutions, that had to form in order for Blackfeet to “get it together.”  Until then, they had operated “as the driftwood lodges”, a traditional phrase meaning drifting at the mercy of larger forces.

What Eloise Cobell came to this through was the same principle as that of the original irrigators along the Nile River ten thousand years ago: that of bookkeeping.  Almost accidentally she became a numbers person, first as the Blackfeet Tribal Treasurer and then as the organizer of the first bank belonging to a tribe.  Once a dependable record has been kept, a lot of analysis is possible.  A cynic could say that why the US government entrusted with the assets of the Blackfeet was radically careless about recording and preserving — they didn’t WANT analysis, because it would reveal moral atrocities and illegalities in their betrayal of trust.  This is so enraging that part of Eloise’s genius was her ability to stay calm.

Corruption is in the news every day now, but now coming from Washington, D.C., where those in power feel free to ignore the rule of law for the whole nation just as they did for tribes.  It drains budgets, confuses procedure, and delays justice.  In Browning major amounts of money would arrive for a stipulated purpose and soon be whittled down to uselessness.  The brainstorm was to organize things like Siyeh, a wholly-owned but independent subsidiary of the tribe, that was designated to run business for profit.  It worked.  Sometimes an entity was organized that was so independent that it funded itself, like the Piegan Institute which kept a library of academic research and ran the Cuts Wood Blackfeet immersion school.

One of the other requirements for this infrastructure was establishing equivalences between “money” in the white man’s sense and the real but ignored value of the reservation with its resources, people, and living beings of the land.  That means more than figuring out how much a grizzly is worth in tourist money and biology grants — it means pulling in the emotional and identity values, the ultimate fate of the planet.

This was helped by the traditional tribal privileging the whole rather than the individual person or even a nuclear family.  When the infrastructure was developed in the tribal way, thought was given to how a given project sustained the whole.  This helps eliminate the often covert-hobbling among whites who think they must be the “last man standing.”  This is also a major drain in today’s national politics, the constant betrayal and deception.

Something similar was true of religion: if one was good, two were even better.  Ironically, the white forbidding of traditional ceremony and belief just ended up making it more valuable.  (I predict we will all be valuing Jesuit chaplains much more now that we search for a moral compass that has been thrown out.)

Eloise understood that in the modern world print literacy is not enough, so she pitched hard for financial literacy.  If the tribe is going to dissolve the robber-trustees of the USA, then the people will need to understand money — not just whether it’s going in or out, whether one needs it or not, but all the strategies of a venture capitalist society.  Most crucially of all, the relationship between “money” and land, the ultimate value.

When I walked in the tour of Bob Scriver’s ranch just becoming a Land Reserve, I realized how old I was.  I barely had enough wind and energy to make it back to the farmhouse, even though coming back was downhill.  My connection is tenuous, but it is real.

Here’s the trailer vid for the bio I had intended to watch:
trailer for 100 years

Friday, April 27, 2018


At the end of the 19th century on the east slope of the Rockies just south of the Canadian border, two great cultures — strategies for survival — clashed and meshed, destroyed and created, murdered and intermarried.  One was already there, the bison-based nomadic people rising out of the land over millennia.  The other came from another continent, or more immediately as spin-off from the War Between the States, a blend of refugees from destruction (including former slaves) and what we might now call “the alt-right,” determined to impose their way of life everywhere, but particularly here.  A few were more progressive, but they were peripheral to these decades in this place.

This post will oversimplify by using the generations of two families, one of which is the Conrads.  Quoting my April 28, 2005, post:  “In the beginning were three brothers: William, Charles and John. In 1868, William (16) and (14) were sent to Montana by their father, Colonel James Conrad, an officer in Mosby’s Raiders and once a plantation owner. He kept John two more years until he turned 14. The first two soon found work with Isaac G. Baker, merchant, river master and whiskey trader. They supervised ox teams, built trading stockades, and John, as soon as he came, handled the gold dust and acted as a courier and road escort. (He was six foot three.) By 1873 he brothers had a controlling interest in the Baker Company and were operating eight trading posts spread out clear to the the Arctic Circle.”  

“William became deeply involved in cattle ranching, though all the Conrads were ranchers for a while. The village of Valier was once part of the Conrad Circle Cattle Company, specifically the Block Hanging Seven. Founder of Conrad, William helped develop irrigation along the southern edge of the reservation. Lake Frances, next to Valier, is the man-made impoundment lake for that system which starts at Swift Dam in the mountains. He cooperated with Jesuits to bring in Belgian grain farmers and occasionally worked behind the scenes (unsuccessfully) to move the reservation boundary farther north so that the work done there at Blackft expense would be part of his system. 

“There was a Fort Conrad at one point.  (The remnants were eaten by the flooding of nearby Marias River) Charles Sr. ran it, as one among a string along the Whoop-Up Trail, now commemorated by markers. The whole complex was based on running what passed for whiskey. . . . Mounties were specifically sent to close the whiskey trade and in 1874 they had about succeeded. Joe Kipp, Schultz, Hiram Upham, and Charles ran the fort for a few years, then sold it to a rancher in 1885. The buffalo had been used up in 1883-84, so there was nothing for Indians to trade. 

“But the prairie was emptied for the great open-range cattle operations. In 1878 the three Conrads put half a million dollars into cattle. William ran these operations and was not sentimental about feeding Indians. For a good price the Conrads supplied over five million pounds of beef for Mounties and reservation Indians in 1880. By then they were thinking about railroads and coal.”

Once the Industrial Revolution arrived, the indigenous culture went underground, but it persisted.  Adolf Hungry Wolf’s fabulous 4-book record of “Blackfoot Papers” carefully documents the People in these years, partly through the petit machines called “cameras.”  But the second family I want to note as generational indigenous power originated in James Kipp.  It is split between a genetic branch and a “named” branch produced by adoption, which was a very tribal thing to do.

It was his son, Joseph, I’m thinking of.  Born in 1849 in Fort Union to Jim’s fourth wife, Earth Woman, he died in 1913, the year before Bob Scriver was born.  He’s buried in the Old Browning Cemetary.  His “Indian Name” was Raven Quiver; he was the 7th “Joe Kipp.”  I’m cheating to choose this family because he was as much Arikara and Mandan as white.  His white family was from Montreal, like the Scrivers.  Joe Kipp was at the bottom of nearly every local scheme for profit, and left plenty of descendents who became more full-blood as time went on.  Some of them were adopted.  Several became writers.

One of the secrets of his success was an alliance with a man named Steele who was occasionally the agent for the Blackfeet Reservation, married to a Siksika woman whose Baker Allotment was the location of Swift Dam, which is how he became part of the irrigation story.  He also has a mountain named for him:  “Major Steele’s Back” which has a sway in it.  He was said to be a morphine addict.

This quote is from this blog on May11, 2016.  “Most interesting has been a lawsuit by the Curry family intended to protect their access to irrigation waters.  It included the history of the building of the original Swift Dam through the collusion of the Blackfeet Agent, commemorated in a mountain near Heart Butte called “Major Steele’s Backbone.”  It has quite a sag in it.  Steele, a morphine addict, was married to a Blackfeet woman and it was her allotment that was at the mouth of the cleft where Swift Dam was built.  At the time the government was trying to boost land occupancy and success and there was money if a dam were used for an irrigation system.  Steele and his compatriots, including the original Kipp, got the dam built on the reservation without paperwork.  Oral declaration that they had grown crops was enough to get the money and a certain amount of grandfathering went on.  This continues to be a hot topic.”

See the post on June 25, 2005, for a bio of Steele.

Built by white men, which created the boom town of Valier, the dam itself was on Tribal land.  it’s creation and management is by a company, now called the Pondera Canal Company and all the canals are on the “white” side.  When the dam was finished, the boom culture collapsed.  (Ivan Doig used some of this in his novels.)  Then the surrounding farms and ranches made possible by irrigation continued to support the town on a much smaller scale.  At one time it is said that you could walk down the streets of Valier and never step off the litter of beer cans.  Today there is no bar in the town.

The people killed when that first earthen dam collapsed were mostly tribal.  Today at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Woody Kipp is on the faculty.  At the Piegan Institute and Cuts Wood Immersion School, founded by Darrell Robes Kipp, the leader is his son, Darren Kipp.  Kipps are everywhere.  None of the Conrads are here.  Their mansion is across the Rockies in Kalispell.

Thursday, April 26, 2018


When I was working as a clerical specialist for the City of Portland in the Nineties, I was told I had the best insurance in town, thanks to the union.  Fat lot of good it did me.

The front of my thigh burned, ached, sometimes dropped my knee out of service so I nearly fell.  I went to the doc.  The first one, a renowned cardiologist trying to finish out a career distorted by the invention of camera catheters that could be threaded inside the heart.  No more need for heart by-passes.  The second was a Japanese rheumatologist who joked but had no answers.  The third one was a pathologist.  He was very severe.  The fourth one was a female GP who put her hand on my knee and advised me to take Advil.  The fifth one was a joint specialist who took an X-ray of my knee while I was standing up and showed me that there was a piece of cartilage missing.  “Nothing to do about it,” he said briskly.  “The knee fails when the remaining cartilage is in the wrong place.”

Walking down the hall, I was going to a meeting ahead of my boss.  He said mildly, “I think your right foot and leg are twisting.  It’s likely plantar fascliitis.”  He was a runner.  I looked up plantar fascliitis and saw he was right.  Tearing of the tissue on the bottom of the foot.  Quite common.

The cure was simple: wrapping the ankle and arch in a stretchy bandage.  The foot was rolling because of the weakness of the knee.  The thigh pain was from the thigh desperately trying to keep my knee straight, so I put an elastic sleeve brace on that, too.  Cured.  Today everyone knows a lot about plantar fasciitis.  Cures and supports are featured in those grandma catalogues full of little gizmos.

More recently I woke up on a Thursday morning as though someone had smashed a baseball bat into the side of my head just above my ear.  I was so dizzy that once I managed to stand up, I couldn’t move without clinging to the furniture.  It hurt a lot.  There was no chance of driving, partly because of the dizziness and partly because the roads were closed or emergency-only.  The little village clinic was closed  (One day a week operation.)  I hurt quite a lot so I took a couple of aspirin (which I never do) and went back to bed.  

Soon up and vomited the rest of the day until there was only dry heaving.  Up, aspirin, down, a few hours of sleep, repeat.  The next two days were weekend, blizzarding.  On Monday I called the clinic to make sure they were open.  It’s only two blocks away.  The receptionist demanded to know why I was coming.  (They all do that so they can estimate the time for scheduling.)  I told her either a stroke or a tumor.  She told me those were too serious for the clinic and I should go to the main hospital, thirty miles away.  I once worked there.  I don’t trust them.  My pickup is old and faulty.  Being on the road was more dangerous than most afflictions.

In the end it was an ear infection.  Self-diagnosed and healed by time, except for still staggering a bit.  I’m thinking.  The turnover at the clinic is fast enough that if I stall for a few months, there will be a new staff.

It’s easy to speculate that since the sponsoring hospital is in some other county’s seat — a hospital with serious problems from aging staff, old-fashion policies, problematic docs and insufficient funds — that this is the source of the problem.  But it’s much broader than that — even world-wide.  Consider my eyes.

At seminary my right eye became infected so I went to U of C emergency.  I was treated by a young woman about to graduate.  Her supervisor was overbearing and indiscrete.  He kept talking about how much money he would make if he were in private practise.  He insisted that the woman test my eye for glaucoma (irrelevant), grabbed her hand when the instrument was touching my cornea and scraped a shallow wound.  I was billed $100 in spite of insurance.  I wrote the most vicious letter I could compose and did not pay, but the damage has followed me ever since.

Three Montana opthalmologists have treated me in recent years.  All three were in the same practise and all three have left to become independent.  The first found holes in my retina and closed them with laser fusion.  These holes may have been caused by bad circulation from overuse and swelling but were refused treatment in Canada as imaginary.  The treatment worked and there has been no trouble from that.

The second was a doc famous for the number and swiftness of his lens replacement surgery.  When I turned out not to have enough cataract to operate, he lost interest.  The third I consulted for itchy, burning, crusty eyes, alarming and serious enough for me to force my way onto his schedule on an emergency basis.  He could find no cause though we considered even eye shadow with sparkles.  Then after a few years he announced that I had ocular rosacea AKA dry eye syndrome, well-known in this computer age because of failure to blink enough.  “Use eyedrops,” he said.  No prescription.  It's in those grandma catalogues.

Part of the problem that prompted leaving was that the practice was run by a management administrator who compelled short predicted exams and removed those traditional clerk assistants who sat by a small lamp in the dark and took notes dictated while the doc looked.  This manager compelled the docs to use a computer instead.  Since these docs, unlike management, were not computer savvy, there were two results.  One was that they were so preoccupied with managing the computer software that they failed to look at the actual eyes.  The other was that they omitted to record some things to save time and trouble.  Like all software, the entry points didn’t always fit the reality, since they weren’t developed by opthamalogists.  But the measures increased profits.

These technical effects on the observation, diagnosis and treatment of delicate matters are part of what undermines confidence in a once profound profession, that of healing, which is meant to be a human interaction rather than a prescription.  Another part is the income disparity which has attracted people concerned only with money.

These matters verge on morality, which is a part of seminary training for religious service.  Management is also looking for opportunities there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018


--------------------------------------------------------------------- As is my practice and preference, I don’t teach writing the way anyone else does.  (Oh, yeah.  Except I don’t teach writing anymore — but I did once.)  I begin by teaching mechanics the way Miss Carter taught the 8th grade.

First learn the 8 parts of speech.  

Second, realize that adjectives always come just ahead of the nouns that they describe.  They answer questions like “what kind, what color, how many, what size, which one?”  They are defined by USE in regard to an object or a word used like an object (love, patriotism)  Understanding how a word is used is the biggest part of doing grammar.  If  ^*# is used as an adjective, that’s what it is.  In this instance ^*# is now an adjective.  No, it isn't.  Here it's used as a noun.  Second try as an adjective:  "That's a ^*# sweater.

Third, adverbs are trickier.  They can be anyplace in the sentence and will answer questions like “where, when, how fast, in what manner”.  (Lazily the dog turned.  The dog turned lazily.  The dog lazily turned.)  Learn to feel the differences when placement is different: the implications, the realizations.  How you want the reader to realize it.

Fourth: memorize all the linking verbs.  Don’t ask why.  Just do it.  If you go to the meeting of Miss Carter’s Class of 1953 (they have lunch in Portland monthly) and ask them to recite the linking verbs, they can though we're all getting close to fifty.  “be, am, is, are, was, were, been, do, does did, have, has, had, shall, will, may, can, must, might, could, would, should.”

Fifth: memorize all the prepositions.  “In, into, to, around, down, beyond, beside, between . . . “  You could make your own list because there are over 70, over 100, and Google will even give you a “popularity” chart.  When I taught the seventh grade, there was a poster of piggies at a fence all going “over, under, around, down, beside, between, etc.”  The main thing is that prepositions begin a phrase that ends in a noun or pronoun.  A “preposition” that doesn’t start a prepositional phrase is an adverb.  (He went in.  Tells where.)

In public school texts there is barely enough time in a year to learn the above, but the real payoff comes later in more complex phrases.  The key to English sentences is the noun/verb axis.  After that, most people don't learn enough grammar for it to mean anything.

Sometimes after the verb comes another noun that is the object — which the verb acts on — or the indirect object which the verb acts on in behalf of the subject.  All this stuff is abstract but indicated by word order which is usually in a row:  subject, verb, indirect object, object.  If you're talking, you already know this stuff in an unconscious way, but at a higher level you need the abstract ability to think of the category and use it as a handle rather than the word itself.  It's easier to change stuff around.

Etc.  All this stuff is in grammar textbooks.  If it’s English.  These last three words are an incomplete sentence because it begins with a big connector word:  if, and, so, but, etc.  Learn them by heart too while you’re at it.  There are few.

All languages have grammar.  If you are trying to learn the grammar of Blackfeet/foot, study German.  Also, think about what the world was like to those early people — to what did they pay attention?  (preposition, split verb with the subject in the middle, object).  How much did time and place and certain qualities really matter to them? 

When you get a good grip on all this double stuff (what you are saying/the uses of the words), you are in a position to grab a sentence, twirl it, bite it, pound it down flat, and make it sing.  Convert a prepositional phrase into a participle (a participle ends in “ing” or “ed”) or give it a gerund as object instead of a noun.  (They had a song.  They had singing.)  Don’t be afraid of strange — strange is good.  Strangefication.  Your computer won’t like it because keyboard technicians are nerds who learned via ESL.

The principle is to be “understandable,” helped by grammar, but slightly strange to make it new, make the reader think, suggest something that is not quite apparent.

Modern English doesn’t pay much attention to the adverbs, tenses and adverb prepositional phrases (once you’ve chunked the sentence into phrases the chunks act like single words)  because they are about timing and sequence which American English doesn’t value.  In America everything happens at once — NOW.  Or sooner.

I used to look through my favorite books, often with long complex sentences, like Matthiessen who loved to mess with sentences.  I’d find a sentence (no time or space to do it here), write down the sequence of parts and label them, then ask the students to convert one part-kind to another part-kind (like, participle to prepositional phrase maybe) or maybe to write a new sentence with parts of the same kind in the same order.  Once they could do that— which was sort of fun — they could write much more clearly.  And they were much more able to rewrite without worrying.  (Not all sentences that begin with connectors are partial if they have the subject/verb intact.  If they don’t, they just don’t.  It’s not Evil.)

But what’s crucial, what makes a real writer, is even deeper, a structure of ideas or at least events.  The big gears and wheels of the subconscious that power the whole enterprise. It was Richard Stern who taught me this, partly because of his love of irony and partly because he was so thoroughly Jewish Manhattan of a certain period, which meant he saw the world in a Procrustean way (chopping off bits that meant nothing to him and adding bits that made sense to him). His long storied history, so different from my own world-view — almost over-inclusive— that I became aware of it as a “thing.”  The irony part comes from understanding what something is supposed to be and expressing that it is not.  Kids get lost.

When Stern was selling big and hitting the lists, students abounded.  As soon as he was a little out of fashion, he was down to the four women of my class.  Almost cancelled.  He learned to like it.  The irony was that he had thought young snarky male Ph.D. candidates were a compliment to his value and the spine of being a high-class human.  He learned something different.  I wish he had written about it with insight.  I slammed him hard with a “dream” about writers in the context of Soviet cannibalism, each one flayed and hung on a rail-hook for later consumption, reduced to a carcass.  He got it.  It was real and it was ironically about the US, at least part of it.  He did not turn me away.

Now write your own damn way.  Damn is not currently a popular intensifier, but I don’t usually say “fucking” as an intensifying adjective or adverb.  When I use the word, I mean the act, as the word meant originally.

Usually, I don’t say “fucking.”
I usually don’t say “fucking.”
I don’t say “fucking” usually.
I don’t usually say “fucking.”
“Fucking is not a word I usually use.”
“To fuck” is a verb phrase.  
More usually, fuck is used as a verb with an object, as in
    “fuck grammar.”

Fucking is a word best used sparingly.
We never said that word in the 8th grade.  Miss Carter might have slapped us.  Anyway some of us didn't know yet what it meant.  What it meant yet.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


Richard Hugo
from the film "Kicking the Loose Gravel Home"

In Montana every fall there is a state-wide in-service education event for teachers.  Each center for these events is in a town with a university.  When I taught English in Heart Butte, the superintendent forbade me to attend the workshop in Missoula.  Totally illegal and indefensible.  But understandable.  He was a former football coach and considered any attempt at literary achievement to be defiant revolution.  I was a known writer.  Sort of. Not to Missoula, but Missoula was considered a hotbed of writing.

Too bad that his attempt to build a football team in Heart Butte came to naught.  (The boys sensibly thought hurting each other was dumb so they much preferred basketball, a game of skill.)  He might not have been pleased by the Jon Krakauer book called “Missoula” which refocuses the town as a hotbed of rape with at least one spiked boot in football and another in hatred and contempt of women. 

Here’s the latest addition to the dossier.  Bear in mind that the U of M was meant to be the humanities capital of the state.  (The “Cow College” is in Bozeman.)  If you’re still trying to decide which coast Montana is on, the excellent but surface-depth linked article may help you get some focus.)

H.G. Merriam, the early humanities scout, was a very nice guy and he was mostly left alone with his literary projects.  It was Richard Hugo who came on like Hemingway, pub-crawling and drunk-driving through the back-country of Montana.  Then Kittredge was supposed to be the next red-blooded male, but he threw in with a woman.  From there, to some people, writing looked like women all the way down.  In other words, dispensable.

When I first came to Montana in 1961, I hoped to take classes in writing in Missoula, which has an ecology like New England where the “real” writers live.  I was already writing, but the only known female writer state-wide was Mary Clearman Blue, who did not make it into this article.  Even in 1990 when I taught in Heart Butte, the Missoula writers made it a point to do outreach to small town Montana.  Judy Blunt was part of that, but also Mary Clearman Blue and Jimmy Welch.  They came in a group to Choteau to celebrate A.B. Guthrie Jr, when he was too old and ill to attend himself, and by this time someone had enlightened my superintendent, because I took half-a-dozen of my best Blackfeet student writers to meet Welch who was very kind to them but still scared them half to death with his success.

The high point of that time was attending a workshop led by Peter Matthiessen and sponsored by Missoula though it was held in the Bitterroot Valley.  It was quite wonderful, but never really counterbalanced the quiet bourgeois predictability of the ladies who taught writing.  Instead my allegiance went to the edgiest, most challenging, darkest, most powerful writing on the continent, mostly indigenous tribal people, gays, and environmental warriors.  Missoula never reached that level of savagery and elemental truth in spite of the Gothics and those who claimed descent from relentless frontiersmen.  Nor have those mostly male people join the fight to prevent the rape of writing.

I can only be as fierce as I want to be because I don’t make money.  I’m not beholden to any football-sucking management types who pretend that destroying brains through collision is perfectly respectable.  I’m retired.  Accusing me of being bitter — which is evidently considered bad — has no impact.  Blogging means I can escape everyone except techies who regularly interfere by mucking up code with complexity and glitches.

Money is the steroid that inflated athletics and undercut thinking.  Money doesn’t like humanities unless it is a certificate that guarantees more income in the future — except that it doesn’t.  Humanities is meant to be truth-focused, no barriers.  To some the only use of writing is porn and propaganda, which are sort of the same thing.

Journalism is not mentioned.  I hope it escaped the ax in spite of being sympathetic to indigenous people and writing about sin subjects.  Reporters seem to be defined as people who expose bad stuff, which is presumably admirable.  Neither are the programs specifically for indigenous people mentioned, but I think they’d better look out.

Rarely do I read what comes out of the Missoula writing program.  When I have, it’s mostly about malaise and thwarted desire.  I know this is typical of the age group, but one wishes for a sense of adventure and tales of survival — those used to be core content.  These days no one is gay, no one is murdered, no one has hallucinations, no one starves — all sharp realities in that town.  I hope I’m wrong and I just didn’t have access to the proper publications.  Judging by this link to Missoula blogs, writers there spend a lot of time cooking. 

But then, I don’t have much respect for MFA programs in general.  The main way to learn to write IMHO is to do it.  Not to ask other people to critique your punctuation and metaphors.  A brain is composed of connections created by experience, not by tic lists of Ten Paths to Success.  The main way to save literary programs is not by finding a cheaper way to buy paper and pencils.  

Sitting around tables bemoaning courses is creating a chicken house.  Most poultry of a species all say the same thing.  Tigers need jungles.  Where’s the outrageous Leslie Fiedler of our time whose ideas tear up the pea patch?  I’ll tell you where: they went  off with Gary J. Cook, too outrageous to be invited to the annual Festival of Books where the ladylike find out which books to buy.  None of them want to hear Vietnam horror stories.

By the time #metoo came around, it was old news in Montana to the wives whose lives bought the ranch for hard-working but emotionally calloused men.  Ask Judy Blunt.  For many of these female writers, books were their equivalent to rodeo bull-riding for guys — a way out of a life of entrapment.  And then it all changed.  Even bull-riding is all smoke, mirrors, and fireworks, a celebration of glamour.  More money steroids, empty, violent, sometimes murderous.  One gets old and tired.

That ignorant old coach/superintendent who feared Missoula is dead.  I’m not.  Yet.  And I write what I want to every day.