Wednesday, December 31, 2014


709 Montana Av, Valier, MT

Now and then someone questions closely how I’ve handled my old age.  Mostly I was the beneficiary of my mother, who left me the money for this house.  It was thirty thousand dollars and some of my advisors recommended that I use that as a down payment on a better house or, since I was satisfied with this modest building, to mortgage it in order to buy another equivalent one to offer as a rental.  What I see now is that probably I ought to have had sixty thousand dollars for THIS house, since it has really needed as much as the original price in terms of repair and maintenance.  It had been a rental and was restored only to the extent that it looked good enough to sell.   But I’m glad I didn’t invest in more houses.  It wasn’t the sure thing everyone thought.  Anyway, I only needed a place to write.

The bathroom is mostly what I upgraded.  It was “homemade” and paneled with dark plywood imitation paneling.  I painted everything white.  The bathtub was shallow and rusty, the electric wall heater had frozen but was still electrically “hot”, and the sink cabinet had been invented with awkward drawers.  I replaced the bathtub with a glass corner shower and the sink with a rather fancy pedestal Victorian china version.  I tried just painting the floor, but it didn’t work and I ended up with a cheap sheet of vinyl.  Never quite finished installing it, actually.  It’s supposed to be glued down but that seems so -- final!  

I should have put money into the under-the-floor plumbing.  A lead section of waterline split underground under the sidewalk and it looked like a budget breaker, but however much I was responsible from the house to the hookup at the water main, water meters for the town had just been installed (a state requirement to qualify for a loan for the town upgrade to a second water tower as well as a water conservation strategy) and so the amount of leakage could not be quantified so I could not be billed.  

Drains have been more of a problem than water supply.  It appeared that the “stink stack” that lets air in so that water can flow through the system and out might have been blocked.  But the shingles are too fragile for someone to go on the roof to check.  We finally just sawed the stack in half down below, so now we know it's clear, but if it becomes blocked, there’s a section of plastic pipe where we could clean it out below. In the end it turned out to have an elbow at the bottom end that was less than a 45º angle that filled with water like a P-trap and made an air lock.  I had thought of the pipe as an exhaust from the sewer pipes so gases could push out, but it is in fact an air DRAW that hasn’t got enough pressure to push IN through water.

The guy who put in my kitchen sink groaned when he saw I’d bought a cast-iron white double-sink -- it’s so heavy that it’s making that whole counter subside a bit.  It was a few hundred bucks and then I paid about ten dollars for the formica counter.  I should have spent the money on the kitchen drain which was put in years and years ago by a home plumber who didn’t really grasp the whole thing about gradients.  Same with the gutters.

But the worst part of the infrastructure of this house is my failure of simple housekeeping.  I’m like the person who’s on a serious diet but finds herself standing in front of the refrigerator with half a chocolate cake in her hand and frosting on her lips.   I start out to do a serious vacuuming and the next thing I know, I’m back at the keyboard.  Boxes are waiting for me to sort that have been waiting for decades. My four-drawer filing cabinets had to go to the garage because they were making the floor sink in the house.  All I want to do is sit at the keyboard.  It's sweeter than chocolate.  (When the cat doesn't puke into it.)

The infrastructure of the town has echoed the house: frail old piping, an aging population without either the money or the will to make big changes mandated by the state and nation.  Valier is essentially a one-industry economic base -- irrigated wheat as developed by Cargill -- which extends from Swift Dam in the rez mountains through the canal system, the lake, the elevators, the railroad and trucking industries, and finally world markets fed by ocean-going ships and controlled by international political agendas.  Beef, pork and poultry are sidelines.  I wonder if anyone here realizes how fragile a climate-dependent, internationally marketed, debt-and-stock-market-controlled monoculture this really is.

The legally defined town is school, grocery store, church, coffee shop, service station, library, hardware store.  The actual power and resources are in the ranches, the “service area” of the post office, the phone lines, the gas pipes, the water system, the electrical transformers.  We need a better governing structure for the two that will help unite the cultures.  Our continuum -- like so many now -- is at two ends with a small middle.  There is a lot of harsh judgmentalism, guarded families, some hidden evils and a front of conformity.  People question me because they wonder whether they should do the same thing in retirement: buy a small house in an out-of-the-way old-fashioned community.  A place with no trouble, they think.  There are a few other "outsiders" here who make it work.  They are self-sufficient, creative, busy.  They like working on their houses and participating in local doin's.

Meadville/Lombard Theological School's library

In other places the most "interesting" event has been watching the disintegration of my religious affiliation.  One seminary is now only “virtual,” the word that used to drive my thesis advisor crazy because I was feeling my way towards a body of thought about how we construct our worlds.  (He was a quietly committed but tolerant Christian.) That is, I accept the post-modern and neurologically supported view that there IS no reality -- even the seminary now has no bricks, no physical presence except books on leased shelves, a negotiable curriculum and a shifting faculty.  

The most major construct there seems to be the importance of non-white, non-male, non-American elements.  All non's.  Like what they tell us is a growing proportion of "none's" when it comes to national religious beliefs.  The other seminary has just lost two more professors due to resignations in protest to management.  The denominational headquarters have moved from the Boston hill underlain by the detritis of centuries to a renovated warehouse district that will probably go underwater in the coming decades.  The major message I get daily in my email is “send money, send money, send money.”  The ministers I so admired have now mostly died of old age.

In terms of  my economics the fallen keystone of this decade has been the crash of publishing.  My “virtual” internal world was constructed at a time I was reading 1910 novels in which the author (female) saved the farm by getting a book published.  Plucky Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery saved their families.  But their lives were desperate, repeating formula stories.  Quite unlike her heroine, Lucy Maud lived with a profoundly depressed Presbyterian minister husband and finally committed suicide.  Was the misery of their lives compensated by the books so many women love?

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Disillusionment about the world of Cowboy Art and all the mythology of patriotism and genius have followed.  None of the realistic biographies of Charlie Russell or Zane Grey or Ernest Haycox or -- indeed! -- Ernest Hemingway have been really accepted or digested.  We love our illusions, our addictions.  Every few weeks someone contacts me to ask hopefully whether their Scriver bronze is worth lots and lots of money.  Usually they are just small unimportant pieces of mostly sentimental value.  

Asian Hungry Ghost

Native American hunger haunt

Hungry ghost is a concept in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs.”  I don’t know whether anyone has ever written a comparison with the woodland Indian monster Wendigo who is starved into cannibalism, not surprising in an ecology where the people hunted smaller animals and depended on water travel.  The high dry prairie was a good place to be in the days of the buffalo and horse.  Less so in the days of the nodding pump jack.  But good enough for me.

Many thought systems teach us to laugh at hardship and the dispersal of vanity.  Such pressures clear the way.  For what exactly, we might not know, but that's the point.  If it were all just what you expected, how could you be astonished by living?  What might happen now that the days are getting longer?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


“In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts” makes it plain that addiction is a wretched fate with no “up side.”  But Maté also says that two things are worse than drug addiction itself and its capacity to destroy people.  One is that the official blunt-object reaction that demonizes pain-killers denies their legitimate relief for suffering people.  The other is that the exaggerated value and the power of covert distribution creates an underground economy of more power than any government.

Enough time has passed since the discovery of effective anesthesias that we’ve forgotten what a great contribution they were.  I wonder whether the media fascination with enacting childbirth agony as a source of drama isn’t a faint memory of a time when a woman going into labor never knew whether she and/or her child would survive.  In many parts of the world that’s still the case and in some parts of the world, it may even be hoped for. Life-saving surgeries like transplants would simply not be possible without deep anesthesia and even ordinary trauma like broken bones and abscessed teeth would be much harder to handle.

A hip replacement

My stepdaughter, a year older than me, died of cancer at age thirty.  There was very little chance of her being cured but she was in agony through the last months because the doctors didn’t want her to be addicted.  She was on a very strict schedule that nurses had to obey though it meant she begged and gripped her bed rails with white knuckles towards the end of the interval.  The doctor knew this, though he didn’t witness it much, and talked about severing her spine to relieve the pain, though it meant that if she did recover by some miracle, she would not be able to walk and would be incontinent.  Her priest said she was in hell on earth.  Today she would have a morphine pump and fentanyl patches.

We are only beginning to apply neuroresearch to pain though it is clear that pain is “in the brain,” that it doesn’t register as pain until it is recorded there in consciousness.  The rest of it forms in the other ninety-plus-percent of what the body does.  It is not necessarily related to tissue damage; even missing limbs can be a major source of pain.  It is a “symptom” that can be a disease in itself, limiting life.

The famous pounding donut

When volunteers were slid into fMRI machines, the experimenters were shocked to see that what lit up when their subjects were made to feel social “pain” (exclusion, rejection, disapproval, desertion) was the same brain network that lit up for “physical” pain.  We know that hypnotism, without any touching, can make people NOT feel pain, though no one has admitted using hypnotism to make people hurt.  

A notorious work of fiction appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine many years ago.  It used physical pain as a metaphor, proposing that young women were being given a drug that made all physical pain feel like pleasure, a bliss that they begged for, and their bodies were found on improvised operating tables where their spines had been opened to impose damage for the sake of the pain.  Of course, the author was talking about heroin, but also the kind of drama-trauma that some young women seem to crave as demonstrating true love: all that operatic jealousy, sacrifice, and renewed passion.  In certain circumstances, the outcome may be murder.

A mouse pup

Other experiments with animals show that the whimpering and calling that distressed baby mammals use to call their mothers can be suppressed with heroin, which means that the mothers never come and the pups never develop the parts of their brain that deal with interaction with others of their species, because brains learn by experience.  A rat pup that goes unlicked by its mother will be sociopathic.  Dysfunctional.  RAD.

We are deeply confused about pain and what it means and who “deserves” relief, as well as what to do about addiction.  We seem to be as stubbornly addicted to the neglect and abuse of children as we are to short-circuiting our brain systems.  According to Maté there are four main systems involved, each of them independent but interacting, far more unconscious than we admit.  1) opioid attachment-reward system, 2) dopamine-based incentive-motivation apparatus, 3) self-regulation areas of the prefrontal cortex and the 4) stress-response mechanism.

Maté flatly states that babies damaged by lack of care will be susceptible to drug addiction and conversely all addicts were neglected as infants.  This goes to the survival of the individual.  But there is also great threat to the survival of the society, because the legitimate government is soon accompanied by an underworld system of commerce based on huge profits capable of exceeding any income from taxes -- without paying any taxes and with private armies of enforcers.  So rich nations become a place where desperate people live under bridges, but even the bridges themselves are so unmaintained that they fall down.  Both are failures of infrastructure, neither supports survival of the human species nor any country.

So here comes my curve ball.  Religions are institutionalized belief systems that are meant to recommend behavior, create communities, and identify meaning for human lives that balances individuals and groups.  Forget about all the pre-existing religions because they evolved in a world that no longer exists.  By now they are so preoccupied with guaranteeing their own survival that they are willing to destroy any competition.  The main guides for their behavior are acquisition and status.

Let’s look at “zero-based” thought structures, based on what we know from research and personal experience will promote well-being.  First, I would want to separate sin (specific acts that are damaging and can be controlled in part, as well as identified with legislation) from evil (the human impulse to destroy and control, perhaps not even consciously).  If we look for the equivalents in terms of “good,” what might they be?  First, funding for the public welfare (the obverse of sin-based criminal systems).  Then against human “evil” we could endorse empathy, participation in the emotional lives of all others.  If evil is not caring about the suffering and destruction we impose on others, then good must be not just shared understanding but “feeling with” them -- not just their suffering but also their joy.

It’s a challenge, esp. when dealing with people whose joy appears to come from imposing suffering on others.  What do we do or think about general deprivation that obviously makes people evil in their effort to survive:  the people of Russia have lived for centuries in misery.  Can they ever be happy without being drunk?  It’s not that they have no natural resources, but that too many people don’t have a big enough share.  And the rest of the world seems to be imitating them.  

In the meantime the planet keeps throwing its own version of curveballs, or maybe more accurately boomerangs, in which our own excesses come back to us in melting icecaps and moving climate windows for crops and ecologies.  Poppies must now be grown north of the previous fields.  The topsoil that has supported the world’s wheat is washing out to sea, which comes a little more inland every year, creeping up over the curbs of the megacities where people have migrated by the millions in search of a livelihood.  What is the religious meaning of the Bangladeshis walking waist-deep in water across what used to be their land?  There isn’t any meaning.  No sin; no evil.  It just is.  The distinction is in the response by us.  That's where the felt meaning is -- in our own hands.

Monday, December 29, 2014

THE ENFOLDERS (Sci-fi fiction)

(The interview transcribed here takes place in the year 3090.)

Q:  What exactly IS an “Enfolder”?  

A.  This is an evolved person, almost post-human, who is not only able to empathize but also to be felt inside the consciousness of the person who has come to them or to whom they have gone.  They are halfway between angels and prostitutes.  That is, they reach out with their wings to form a sheltering tent of protection and comfort for the person, which is where the “Enfolder” term comes from, but they are also able to make intimate contact, either letting the person enter them or by penetrating the person.  That’s the other more "sexual" half.  Both images are very powerful in our culture.

Q:  So when did the past people begin to think of creating “Enfolders”?  They have made such a difference in the way people get along.  So much more real healing.  How did they even imagine this kind of person?

A:  It’s a natural growing edge of human evolution.  We know that at some point humans developed “empathy” and were able to at least “feel with” others.   That led to the creation of communities, collaborations, and sustained group efforts like symphonies and cathedrals, ocean-going ships and research labs. 

by Natasha Metaxa

Q.  How did you actually create “Enfolders?”

A.  We found some people particularly good at it.  “Method” actors, for instance, were used to inhabiting other people and had explored themselves without restraint, so they could respond even to very twisted criminals.  Some shrinks were good at it -- the ones who didn’t depend on theory very much.  Often, old women.  A few religious people.   But our best prospects were sex workers -- not street walkers, but high-level courtesans who could only be found via networks of people who knew them.  They were people who talked to their clients, figured them out so as to pleasure them.  Not many parents -- too busy to enfold their children.

Partly we used old-fashioned methods: finding people who were natural Enfolders and forming them into a group that mixed genes until a new kind of person emerged from them.  But then also by studying the genetic plan for this kind of person we could add genes and epigenes that would make them Enfolders much sooner.  They did need special experiences, like being enfolded themselves.  

by Natasha Metaxa

Q.  Are there people who resist enfolding?

A.  Oh, yes.  That’s a problem we’re trying to understand now.  Some of them seem to have a prion disease, that is, a few are actually excellent Enfolder material except some of their protein molecules tend to fold in some misshapen way.   “In” where they ought to be “out.”  We don’t know why.  It's very ironic since a crumpled molecule gene is the opposite of what psychic Enfolding is supposed to do.

Q.  How do you go about treating resisters?

A.  Usually the resistance comes from damage, but sometimes there’s something missing that failed to develop -- a code corruption.  We’re getting better at adding code to the genomes of the damaged people, but also we know that humans grow and change in response to their environment, so we set about changing the human "built" aspect of the planet itself.  You might know that the shelters, the public baths, the food stations that are now in every settlement are part of our movement.  Each of them has an Enfolder on call.  

Q.  Are males or females better Enfolders?  

A.  I’m surprised at your question since we’ve known for a long time that every gender-assignment is negotiable and sex is unique for every human.  Sex is not the only way to be Enfolded, though it works well, but Enfolding is an extension of the hormone loop involving oxytocin, which is a nurturing, sheltering, empathy-based phenomenon.  In fact, dogs are pretty good at enfolding, since they evolved along with humans, in their same domiciles.

But I have to admit that in the early Star Trek episodes the precursor Enfolders were female.  Troi, for instance, or Guinan, the Whoopi Goldberg character.  Of course, when Heinlein spoke of “grokking” he didn’t specify gender.

Q.  How would you answer accusations that Enfolders are pussies who have no strength and stifle creativity because they let everyone get so comfortable that they don’t try to make things or improve?

by Natasha Metaxa

A.  Perhaps you know about the dynamics of a protective parent?  They can be superhuman in their opposition to destruction and danger.  There are stories about small women who somehow were able to lift cars off their run-over children.  Soldiers say they aren’t fighting for some patriotic politician back home, but rather for the man next to them.  In combat men are often Enfolders of each other.  It’s not weakness, but strength.

The basic engine of survival is desire, a force that be twisted and abused, but which in its purest form is always creative and as strong as humans can be.  All the arts come from desire.  
by Natasha Metaxa

Q. But isn’t destruction necessary to clear a place for the new?  Since there isn’t enough room on the planet and it has turned out that going to other planets was impractical, isn’t death necessary to make way for birth?  Doesn’t art come from anguish?

A.  Oh, yes.  If that weren’t true there would be no need for Enfolders.

Q.  Could I meet one of these Enfolders?

A.  Wait here for a few minutes.

. . . . . . . .
by Natasha Metaxa

A figure enters the room and a soft voice asks, “Would you like me to be male or female or something between?”

The journalist responds, “Must you ask?”

“We do best to start in a formal way where you have explicit control.”

“Okay.  May I have a child?”  (He's a little scared and thinks it might be safer.)

The figure becomes an eight-year-old in jeans and striped t-shirt, bowl-cut hair, bare feet.  He comes to stand beside the journalist and puts a hand on his shoulder.  “We won’t use the sexual trope for merging,” he says.  The journalist feels relieved.  He hadn't thought of that angle.

“May I hug you?”  It was unclear who was asking but the hug came.  There were no real wings present, but a kind of rustling, a softness and warmth without any pressure or feeling of confinement.  From this safety the journalist felt his mind project images left from his expeditions to troubled places, and some photographic images of places even harder to bear.   He had witnessed some, written about them. Charred and dismembered bodies.  At this point in the future most wars and starvations had been eliminated or curbed, but the planet continued in its violent catastrophes: earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes, tsunamis, blizzards, landslides.  No Enfolder had any power against them except to deal with the responses to the tragedies.  We can choose how to react.

Rage, sorrow, hunger, craving.  Then the journalist began to feel himself dancing with the child -- even though the boy was smaller, they seemed matched.  Both seemed to have wings.  As they moved, muscle pain and joint aches in the journalist dissolved.  Music began a sound weave and emanated a great comfort. But it was not like heroin or cocaine -- oh, yes, the journalist had tried drugs at one of the terrible periods of his life, but he had been able to kick.  Still . . .

The child felt that and returned it transformed -- it was like having the child’s hands on his actual heart, easing bruises he hadn’t known were there.  He felt his usual insomniac guarding tension leave, but without falling into the black void that usually was how he felt when he slept.

He laughed.  The child had become a dragon.  What a cliché!   But he HAD asked for a child. Maybe it was one of those feathered dinosaurs he had just read about.  They were flying.  From this height, the planet was luminous and whole.  Now he had something to write.

Sunday, December 28, 2014


One research revelation is coming after another -- or maybe they are realizations since the knowledge was always there and, once thought of, is perfectly clear and real.  It’s strange that we always think we’re coming to an ending of history, the line has been drawn, the sum has been added, and it’s all over.  Except it never is. You don’t even have to make an effort because it all shifts, except that it’s not the world shifts so much as we’re seeing it differently.

Being able to see into neuron cells and their hookup relationships has revealed:

1.  “Thinking” is something the whole body does all the time: it is taking in a representation of the world and reacting to it in every second.  More than that, the body and brain is changing and rearranging itself between representation and reaction in every second.  The brain connectome is like a piano concerto that chords out changing patterns as it plays.  It’s not a bump for this and a wire for that, it’s 100 synapses at once, all over the brain and back into the brain stem.

2.  The body’s 3-R process is a dance, a shifting process.  We are not aware of this most of the time.  We think we are “me,” a unified identity, with trustworthy memories of an actual past.  (Except where did I put the car keys?)

3.  Self-awareness, consciousness, is a small percentage of the body’s commotion.

4.  Words are only an even smaller percentage of consciousness/concepts and they are at the mercy of the culture that supplies the categories and some of the grammar.

5.  Writing is only a small percentage of what spoken words can express, passed through another set of filters that are about keyboards or gripping an instrument while staying in control of font size, sequences, clarity.

6.  Somehow our Western culture has come to believe that writing is a mark of superiority and that writing really well is not only the most distinctive of human characteristics but also true communication and an indication of genius.

This last assertion is hooey.  I’ll just leave it there.  For now.

Something similar is true of addiction.  The knowledge we have now is challenging our assumptions.  (I’m reading Gabor Maté’s book, In the Land of the Hungry Ghosts, about a program to help the most seriously suffering addicts in Vancouver, BC.)

1.  Not everyone gets addicted easily.  In ninety percent, or two-thirds, or some comparable majority fraction of people, depending on the drug and the circumstances, their molecular responses are not permanently changed.  For an addict, the cell membrane is changed in a way that prevents it operating as it should.  Instead of allowing the proper molecules access and producing the proper molecules in the first place, it closes the  cell entry points for the reciprocal endo-transactions that must take place.  Instead the cell membrane and cell synapses shape themselves around the exogenous, outsider, molecules.  Then they quite literally MUST have them to work.  This is not conscious.  It cannot be felt by introspection of the cells, just general malaise.  It can only be observed in behavior.  But the early results are highly rewarding: blissful.  Later this high can only be felt by increasing intake of the drug.
Maté on the left

2.  Addiction is sometimes seen as an emotional reaction to a miserable life or a need for emotional comforting, a compensation for deprivation.  That can be the original motivation for taking drugs, but soon -- in those susceptible -- the cells have changed enough that it is now a mechanical problem, just as much as if bones were broken.  The things that are supposed to make a teeny mobile ecology of membranes and molecules shift back and forth to produce thought and life are disrupted.  No amount of will power can restore them.  Proper protection of the person (shelter, food, sleep), compensating meds, support from people who understand, and the stamina to withstand withdrawal can sometimes allow people to find a new balance.  Incarceration will not work.  Methadone works if the person can stay on it.

Addiction is a physiological condition dependent on the cell's own actions that (like HIV) makes a person vulnerable to desire, meant to keep a person alive but driven to a kind of desire that will kill them, if not directly then by the neglect of other self-protections.  Maté believes that the fraction who have susceptibility were made that way just before or after birth.  Environment is crucial.

Somewhere I read a quote (I wish I’d written it down with the attribution) that suggested  the brain machinery for nurturing and the brain machinery for rage are like parenthesis, two “hands” that hold between them what we call love or attachment.  I read today that the hormone called “oxytocin” -- which we all learned from reading Herriott's “All Creatures Great and Small,” would make a resentful cow turn and care for her calf or a sow begin to make milk for her piglets -- is not ever present in reptiles.  Instead there is a precursor chemical that prompts crocodiles, for instance, to go to the birthing place, dig the hole, produce the eggs.  Then they leave.  It's humans who go "aaaww" over the babies and want to cuddle them.

"Oxytocin is a sort of moral governor, and that sense of morality comes from this ancient mechanism that modulated approach and withdrawal behavior. The precursor molecule for oxytocin, which was found in fish at least 400 million years ago, modulated approach and withdrawal behavior between males and females to facilitate sexual reproduction. So the value of sex is that you get greater genetic diversity faster. But the curse of sex, if you’re a fish, is that if this other fish gets close enough to you to fertilize you, you might instead become its lunch. What the precursor oxytocin did in the female was allow the approach of a male fish, but only when the female was ovulating.

"Oxytocin does the same thing in humans. It modulates approach and withdrawal behavior, and it does so by modulating fear responses."

One of the most moving stories in “Hungry Ghosts” is that of a pair of addicts who were educated, gifted people but hooked and therefore thrown on badd times.  He was more alcoholic.  She was into cocaine.  She became pregnant.  Somehow the baby was okay, but the mother rose and left as soon as the infant was born.  The father, who had been in and out of the relationship, then stepped in and for the first few weeks of the little girl’s life, as she was weaned carefully from her intrauterine addiction, he was the nurturer.  Something in the woman’s addiction evidently blocked the production of oxytocin, but alcoholism did not, even in this male.  At least for those several weeks -- then he went off on an alcohol binge and the baby was fostered.

So the function of oxytocin is to trigger nurturing or what I might even call cradling and in its most basic function -- before mammals -- was to allow two creatures who might otherwise compete, fight or eat each other to declare enough of a truce to unite semen with ovum.  Even in mammals there are no guarantees of protection.  In some animals, sex is agonistic enough to seem almost like fighting.  (Insert cat joke here.)  Tom cats will eat kittens.  Threatened mother mink will kill all the babies.

Sing it!

If everything in a body works as a reciprocity, then human love might be seen as occupying a place on a continuum between nurturing/cradling and raging/attacking.  So would the molecular trigger for violence be testosterone or adrenaline?  Or both?  Fear?  If in Ray Rappaport’s terms, all the reciprocities amount to the banks of the stream that is homeostasis (too much hot or cold and you die; too much food or not enough food and you die) so that likewise too much nurturing is suffocation and too much violence is traumatic wounds.  But the momentum goes forward towards survival, moving a little from one side or the other, so long as the bounds of endurance are not exceeded.  This metaphor is an account of the survival of individuals.  We tell many versions in what we call “novels,” and illuminate points on the continuum with “poems” or “songs.”

The survival of groups requires a different sort of homeostasis -- between war and peace.  Or more temperately, between economic competition and protection.  These are related to population density, slipping over to murder when there are too many people or suicide when life is too limited.

Rats in a box get addicted to pushing a lever for drugs.  Rats in a rat-friendly environment, a Rat Park, big as a human house with lots of things to do and play with, simply don’t get addicted. All mammals are pretty much like that.  Like, boys need Skate Parks; dogs need Dog Parks.  

Saturday, December 27, 2014


Pope Francis

Pope Francis is three years older than me.  We’re not “boomers” born during the triumph of winning a World War and feeling entitled to the wave of prosperity that followed.  We are professionals who remember “professing” in the sense of living according to belief, living as if  what we profess is vital, a calling, a sacred duty.  His profession is ancient and invested.  Mine (writing) is humble and a little shabby -- even trite -- but I DO profess without quite being an academic "professor," because I’m not teaching what is known -- rather seeking what is not known.  Writing the way I do it is a minor profession.  Income level has nothing to do with it.

Today the meaning of "professional" has diminished to meaning “dressing up” and even manicurists claim to be professional.  The Montana legislature is afraid their prestige will be damaged if anyone who is not dressed "professionally" shows up on the floor.  If Jesus were to try to visit them, he would not be able to enter wearing his nightgown as he seems to, not even if he borrowed a necktie. 

I’ve been reading the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders and shaking my head because so much of it is not about “mental disorder” at all -- just attitudes that the culture doesn’t like.  The Pope’s list of “dis-eases” is so much more to the point.  So I'm going to repeat them here.  I don't mean them to apply to Cardinals so much as to authority figures and professionals here on the east slope, whether Indian chiefs or physicians.  At least Cardinals know how to dress.

One of the characteristics of professionals was supposed to be that they maintained the highest standards of behavior by monitoring each other.  This week we have heard about a doctor whose behavior sounds like beginning dementia and yet no other doctor will challenge him because of the lawyers, another set of professionals.  The lawyers leave it to the journalists -- are they professional?  I started to list Unprofessional People and stopped because it is too daunting:  judges who blame teenaged rape victims, doctors who threaten to kill nurses, legislators who lie and cheat.  Is it that we're looking more closely or that the times are too scary?  Is it a gaming mentality?

Has the art been swept for depictions of naked people?

The disease of feeling 'immortal' or 'essential'
'A curia that does not practice self-criticism, does not keep up to date, does not try to better itself, is an infirm Body'. The Pope mentions that a visit to cemeteries could help us see the names of many who 'maybe thought they were immortal, exempt and essential!'. It is the disease of those who 'turn into masters and feel superior to everyone rather than in the service of all people. It often comes from the pathology of power, the "Messiah complex" and narcissism'. 

The disease of excessive activity
It is the disease of those who, like Martha in the Gospel, 'lose themselves in their work, inevitably neglecting "what is better"; sitting at Jesus' feet'. The Pope recalls that Jesus 'called his disciples to "rest a little", because neglecting necessary rest brings anxiety and stress'.

The diseases of mental and spiritual 'petrification'
It is the disease of those who 'lose their internal peace, their vivacity and audacity, to hide under papers and become "procedural machines" instead of men of God', unable to 'weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice!'.

The disease of overplanning
'When the apostle plans everything in detail' and believes that, through this, 'things progress effectively, thus becoming an accountant. Good planning is necessary but without falling into the temptation of wanting to enclose or steer the freedom of the Holy Spirit... it is always easier and more convenient to fall back on static and unchanged positions'.

The disease of bad coordination
It is the disease of members who 'lose the community among them, and the Body loses its harmonious functionality' becoming 'an orchestra producing undisciplined noise because its members do not cooperate and do not live communally and have team spirit'.

The disease of spiritual Alzheimer's
That is a 'progressive decline of spiritual faculties' which 'causes severe disadvantages to people', making them live in a 'state of absolute dependence on their, often imagined, views'. We can see this in those who have 'lost their memory' of their encounter with the Lord, in those who depend on their 'passions, whims and obsessions'.

The disease of rivalry and vainglory
'When the appearance, the colour of  the vestments and the honours become the first objectives of life... It is the disease that leads us to become false men and women, living a false "mysticism" and false "quietism"'.

The disease of existential schizophrenia
It is the disease of those who live 'a double life, a result of the hypocrisy typical of mediocre people and of advancing spiritual emptiness, which degrees or academic titles cannot fill'. It often strikes us that some 'abandon the pastoral service and limit their activities to bureaucracy, losing touch with reality and real people. They thus create their own parallel world, where they set aside all that the others harshly teach' and live a 'hidden' and often 'dissolute' life. 

The disease of gossip and chatter
'It takes hold of a person making them "sowers of discord" (like Satan), and, in many cases, "cold-blooded murderers" of the reputation of their colleagues and brothers. It is the disease of cowards, who do not have the courage to speak upfront and so talk behind one's back... Watch out against the terrorism of gossip!'.

The disease of deifying the leaders
It is the disease of those who 'court their superiors', becoming victims of 'careerism and opportunism' and 'live their vocation thinking only of what they must gain and not of what they must give'. It might also affects the superiors 'when they court some of their collaborators in order to gain their submission, loyalty and psychological dependence, but the final result is real complicity'.

The disease of indifference to others
'When each one thinks only of themselves and loses the truthfulness and warmth of human relationships. When the more experienced ones do not offer their knowledge to the service of less experienced colleagues. When, because of jealousy or cunning, we rejoice in seeing others fall, rather than lift them up and encourage them'.

The disease of the funeral face
It is the disease of people who are 'scowling and unfriendly and think that, in order to be serious, they must show a melancholic and strict face and treat others - especially those, whom they think are inferior - with rigidity, harshness and arrogance'. In reality, adds the Pope, 'theatrical strictness and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity about themselves. The apostle must strive to be a polite, serene, enthusiastic and joyful person...'. Francis invites people to be full of humour and self-irony; 'How beneficial a healthy dose of humour can be!'

The disease of hoarding
'When the apostle seeks to fill an existential void in his heart by hoarding material possessions, not because of necessity, but only to feel secure'.

The disease of closed circles
When belonging to a clique becomes more important than belonging to the Body and, in some situations, than belonging to Christ himself. Even this disease starts from good intentions, but in time it enslaves all its members becoming "a cancer"'.

The red shoes had to go, but no one said anything about socks.

The disease of worldly profit and exhibitionism
'When the apostle turns his service into power, and his power into a commodity to gain worldly profits, or even more powers. It is the disease of those people who relentlessly seek to increase their powers. To achieve that, they may defame, slander and discredit others, even on newspapers and magazines. Naturally, that is in order to show off and exhibit their superiority to others'. A disease that 'badly hurts the Body because it leads people to justify the use of any means in order to fulfill their aim, often in the name of transparency and justice!'

Here's a guy who can't go on the Montana legislature's floor.
Doesn't meet the dress code.  And he's not American.

Friday, December 26, 2014


A.B. Guthrie Jr's beloved Ear Mountain from the air.
Five of his genre novels were in sight of this formation.

There has always been a discussion of “regionalism” among writers: is it a limitation, a sort of provincialism, a failure to compete or be universal in global terms?  In the other direction, there are efforts to connect “specialness” and privilege to certain places: the Left Bank in Paris, SF in the Beat years, and Montana either as a 19th century cowboy place or as a contemporary environmental paradise.  For a while Montana books were guaranteed to be popular, but now it is Portland books.

It struck me as an issue because several times now when I’ve told people that my “prairiemary” blog has readers all over the planet, maybe as many from China or Australia as in Montana, their reaction is “well, everyone romanticizes cowboys and is interested in the West.”  They give a "we're so special" smug grin.  But constant readers will know that though I privilege the high prairie -- the old Blackfeet territory -- I allot most space to stuff like sex or neurological research or something I have a hard time naming -- sorta like "the design of peak experience" (liturgical theory).  I spend time on small town dynamics and infrastructure, which seem to be universal in a way that transcends one continent or another.

In a way, thinking of something as “regional” like cowboys and scenery is to be confined by it and put down, but in another way it is a kind of pride, a confidence that the place is special, enviable.   (Last Best Place, God’s Country.) It invites visitors, but it’s an exclusion of anyone from “outside,” a xenophobia.  The newspaper makes a great fuss about local places to eat, local bumper stickers, weather jokes, creating an “in” space, a kind of club.

There is resentment of the more sophisticated and moneyed people who come in here and establish grand empires without having any ancestors who broke their backs and risked their lives to develop the prairie and establish the towns.  But then there’s pride that these big shots would WANT to come here and put up massive log entrance gates in the middle of 3-strand barbed wire fences.

There’s a certain kind of conservationist who brags about how deep into the wilderness they’ve gone, how many mountains they can name and how many trails they know from backpacking.  There are a lot fewer who are trying to understand aquifers and how to manage a sewage lagoon when the temps are thirty below zero.  Some are trying to get their cows up into the deep mountain grass for 19th century government fees, and others are plotting to get as many wolves and bears as possible down as low as people will tolerate.  Some want the profit and some want the romance.

The great commonality is that everyone wants the money.  Money is ironically the great leveler and equilibrium among all the types who try to occupy this long section of horizon.  Somehow we fail to notice that an island off the East Coast called “Manhattan” has a grip on the money valves of Montana and has had since the earliest days of extractive mineral industry.  This is also true of literary efforts, though most of the people in Manhattan have a weak grasp on what Montana is like.  

When I was circuit-riding for the Montana UU Fellowships, occasional big shots would come from Boston for ceremonies.  Invariably, when they first stepped out of the airplane, they gasped.  Sheer size finally dawned on them.  Even more so after being driven around my circuit.  Each location (Missoula, Bozeman, Helena, and Great Falls) was unique and didn’t much understand the style and circumstances of the other three, nor did they feel any need to find out. So the provincialism (if you want to call it that) of the state was echoed in each town.  That was more true in the Eighties when I was traveling.

Television made some difference, but the Internet has transcended the state and the nation for those who know to reach out.  The farther the reach, the more shared the basis for sympathy and understanding.  In some ways, the UU denomination I served has been exceeded by the world-wide population of people who are in cahoots with each other, which means that local physical groups are only a small part of the movement, not necessarily aware of anything but their own friends.  They are content with what they know.  Scientific mysticism hasn't been institutionalized, so it isn't yet considered religion.

Be very careful about praising the scenery to me.  I become contemptuous of people who rave about how beautiful Glacier Park is.  It's not that I don't think the mountains are beautiful -- it's that they are so much more than that. They are NOT the dwellings of the Gods, although when I was circuit-riding, I called the statewide newsletter, “How Beautiful Upon the Mountain Are the Feet of the Messenger.”  

The line is from Isaiah 52.7 and in context goes like this:  "Therefore My people shall know My name; therefore in that day I am the one who is speaking, 'Here I am.'" How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, Who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, "Your God reigns!"  Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices, They shout joyfully together; For they will see with their own eyes When the LORD restores Zion.…”  

A ranch family actually named Zion lived nearby.

I doubt many people looked it up.  It was meant to get them to think about what the purpose of this circuit-riding gig was: a chance to grow, to learn, to form new connections.  I think they mostly thought in terms of “hiring,” a status upgrade, and making it easier to run meetings.  At the time I just sort of skipped over that.  I was still idealistic and believed in the “spirituality” of the denomination.

Now I feel much differently about mountains, esp. the Rockies.  My chapter of John Vollertson’s book, “Landscape and Legacy: The Splendor of Nature, History and Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front,” emphasized the deep canyon refuges on the east slope where literary types and fiddler-playing Metis built quiet cabins.  Others identified the mountains with freedom and adventure.  Many fond memories. 

View south from the summit of Ear Mountain, photo by Ralph Thornton

Today I see that long sinuous cordillera as a living creature, pulsing over time with the forces of deep underground tectonic clash, breathing with hurricane-force storm and erosion, carrying snowpack, rains chuting down couloirs, the force of relentless sun heat opening cracks, the weight of glaciers shearing off cirques.  Metamorphized stone, sedimentation in a parfait of colors, avalanche to a skirt of scree, roots penetrating into every crevice and followed by the wedging ice, grizzlies levering boulders to get at the sweet-fleshed rodents hiding underneath.  Game trails of deer and elk weave in and out, making double and triple helixes that carry code for predators to read. Mountain goats climb ever higher on their sponge-bottomed hooves and ignore the peaks above them on the assumption that no predators will get that high.  Except humans.  Maybe eagles hoping for meat if they can knock a kid off a ledge.

The rosy alpenglow feels its way across the face of the ramparts in the early morning; all day the sun fingers along and around the knobs and chutes, the standing obelisks and fallen rubble; then at the end of the day sinks down into indigo cutouts of horizon.  A storm can bring shouts of thunder, speaking emphatically, then muting into rainbow whispers when the clouds move on through.  When a storm shelf of cloud stands behind the peaks, it’s an echo, a stanza of repeated chorus.  Often late in the day wind pulls back a wind arch to show the sun as a hymn to the day just past.

This way of talking is a little too twee, too fancy, too sentimental, too purple.  But that doesn’t make it untrue.  Such thick metaphor can mean nothing to people who only look at it as a kuppelhorizont panorama of scenery in a theatre best only visited with camera in hand, not lived in.  Check it off the tick list of things to see.  You could say it is a cathedral, so people will believe you are spiritual.

But it has nothing to do with formal religion or emotional spirituality or any historical legacy.  Nothing human.  It is the foundation of life, the substrate of the holy, before and after any human systems or uses.  It sustains us and destroys us without any meaning we can know.  Thus we are humbled and that is a valid use of the Rocky Mountains, but not one many people seek.