Wednesday, November 30, 2016


The planet we call “Earth” or “Home” includes three dynamic fluids that cause constant change.  When they are proceeding through recurring fairly orderly cycles that interact with each other in ways long-lasting enough for the animal and plant populations to become fitted to them and dependent on them, we are happy and growing.

The three big fluids are:

Molten planet interior, on which the tectonic plates float, carrying continents

Seas, lakes and rivers moving water on and between the continents and also rising by evaporation into the air, then falling back on it

Atmosphere, moving around and around in currents, but also rising and falling

Animals that live in water are of two kinds: those who stay in one place like barnacles and those who travel through the water, responding to the temperatures, like fish.

Animals that live out of water must have a skin or boundary to carry water with them.  If there is not enough, too much, or the wrong kind, the animals die.  

There are other dynamics that make the planet change.  Sunlight sends energy, both the force and feed of light, which travels around and around the planet because the planet turns, creating the cycle we call day-and-night.  The sun’s heat drives the convection winds that create the currents of water and air, forming jet streams that circle the planet and driving the currents in the oceans among the continents.  Because the continents are partly ice, controlled by altitude, they change, which changes the currents of water and air.  If the ice on the planet all melts, the ocean currents will be quite different and climates will change.

Variables create and control life.  And yet humans focus on keeping everything the same.

We know all this though we don’t think about it much.  But now that writing has been invented, we have information over a much longer time period, and realms of knowledge we haven’t had time to digest:  DNA, records drawn from geology that go back to the formation of the planet, self-observation from satellites that are able to image us from far above, molecular and atomic understanding.  There’s too much to think about properly and many people have no access or interest in the conclusions anyway.  Their earth is flat, their people are local, and their possessions are everything.  They live in day-tight compartments.

Watching the news, I consider whether fire is a fluid.  It is certainly a change agent and I suppose observation from satellites would see flames move in cycles across the continents.  The smoke of fires enters the atmosphere, changes the temperatures, and if it is big enough — like the magma-driven fires of volcanoes — changing the climate.

Within all this, as my small self, I try to preserve identity.  I have two strategies:  boundaries and patterns.  These are the essence of life itself, the processes of bodies as they germinate, differentiate, age, and die.  My skull is a planet with a connectome of electrochemical flow fed by the oxygen brought by my whole-body circulation of blood and lymph.  The patterns are ideas and cause acts.

I have a sphere of influence, this blog in particular.  But the spheres I once thought were so important, where I thought I had impact, have dissolved.  No one remembers the animal control skirmishes, the UU fellowship efforts,  or even my part in the Scriver bronzes.  Teaching was only a wandering.  These were institutional contexts.  Institutions are human organized efforts to keep everything the same.  Now I see that nothing can stay the same and it wouldn’t be a good thing if it did.

I’m amused that this new NY Times investigation into Trump’s “empire” have revealed that most of his “holdings” are actually just legal agreements to use his name, deals with other institutions as a short cut for their branding.  It turns out he actually “owns” much less, the same as his nonprofit foundation simply took credit for other people’s contributions and his university taught nothing because there was little or nothing to teach about how Trump got rich.  His achievements are no much more than that little child’s book about a kitten who boasts “I Could Pee on This.”  No wonder he didn’t want anyone to look at his business books.  No wonder he’s suddenly willing to divest — it will be much less of a problem if there’s little actual ownership — just legal agreements.  It’s all paper, bookkeeping.

Money doesn’t exist.  Value changes.  It is a swirl of exchanges recorded by beads, discs of precious metals, printed IOU’s, and now simply computer records in a machine somewhere.  The most potentially valuable commodities, the ones that never lose their value, are water and oxygen, but we do not protect them.  When they are lost, we will die.  They are international, global.  But we pursue money instead and expect nations to protect bookkeeping profit, not the ultimate infrastructure of air and water.

When I try to understand what I should do with the fragment of my life that is left (I’m 77) and try to grasp what I’ve achieved up to this point, I end up only confused.  How much of the lives of individuals is bound up in the far larger swirls of civilization and how much are those huge forces the product of geological and biological changes that we might not even notice.  What could anyone say that would matter?

The Manhattanite political opinionators were shocked SHOCKED that the middle of the USA voted for Trump, because they were still envisioning them as Mayberry rural places where people live on family farms and ranches or in small towns where the values were traditional and conservative.  Surely none of those people would vote for a clown with a naked wife whose wealth came from fancy hotels (with all those lovely private rooms for assignations) and pretentious golf courses which all the men love because that’s where all the real deals are made.

They didn’t see that the families had been bought out by companies who run big industrial ag operations — feedlots and mega-elevators that shift meat and grain around the planet in major deals.  These people are wealth-affiliated because on this scale ag is really capital-based, esp. when one factors in the commodities stock market.  These are the people who constantly check the computer version of ticker tape.  The ones who are American (I’d like to see a percentage) are far more likely to be Republican.

Yesterday I had coffee with a man who had been offered a job on a big ranch.  $400 plus a little old house forty miles from town.  He had no trouble turning it down because he has a LOT of money:  a few years ago when he had an industrial job of some kind and took a violent head injury,  insurance and a lawsuit brought him a big payout.  The only trouble is that beyond buying a new pickup at the top of the line and a humonguous flat-screen on which to watch trash and propaganda, he can’t think what to do with himself.  He probably won’t live very long anyway.

The insight, guidance and just plain morality of religious systems fall short these days.  The pill turned out to be as explosive as gunpowder.  Science tells us all sorts of things, but we pay no attention.  China was crushed by its own overpopulation, so forced people to observe a law mandating one-child-per-family.  If a woman got pregnant a second time, she was forced to abort.  Since couples could only have one child and boys were more likely to make money to help with their parents’ old age, they voluntarily aborted girls if they could determine that before birth or secretly killed them at birth.  

Now China’s major problem is men coming of age with no wives to stabilize them and create new families.  They lean against the walls, yearning for meaning, ready to catch fire in a war, probably more dangerous than nuclear technology.  One solution would be the importation of wives from another country, but wives carry their culture to the children, so they would not really be Chinese and the country would not be an institution that preserved its past.

America’s workforce is not just being displaced by industrialization and major international corporations who “off-shore” industry.  Their work culture has shifted out of their hands.  Now the pride, the allegiance to institutions (labor unions, church, towns) has betrayed them and they are the ones leaning against the saloon counter.

History offers us more examples of power crash than the Roman Empire, which is the one we like best.  The harrowing of plague, of disaster (in 1450 a series of erupting volcanoes dropped average temps below what would grow crops), of invasion (Genghis Kahn and Tamerlane) cause death and destruction.  But then afterwards, when balance is regained, things are often much better for a while.  From a kind of exaggerated point of view, if you think of the Islamic countries as a harrowing recurrence of the Mongols, one should simply survive until the wave passes.  Prepare for a New Order that includes them.  The old white wealthy males are going to die soon anyway.  Even dictators die.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Mary Scriver with nice red cheeks.

When my mother-in-law was in her Eighties, basically healthy but beginning to show signs of age, she was indignant that when she had some disorder with a fancy foreign name (which made her proud because it was distinctive), it always turned out that all her friends had it, too.  Meniere’s syndrome, an inner ear problem which made her walk like a drunk; diverticulitis which made her stomach hurt and so on.  She probably had diabetes 2 by today’s terms, but no one knew about it then.  Likewise, I never heard anyone talk about Sjogren’s syndrome.  

But it appears I have it.  Not that it’s much, just a pesky marginally auto-immune disorder.  No doctor has said I have it, but no doctor in the half-dozen years I’ve been complaining about my eyes has anyone talked about ocular rosecea, though the telltale scaly patch on my bright pink Scots cheeks is right under the eye I complain about the most.  Finally my eye doc talked about “dry eye syndrome”.  In the internet era, that’s enough of a clue to unravel what’s happening.

He didn’t say what to do about it, except use eye drops, but I soon found out about using hot compresses (washrag under the hot water tap, maybe with a bit of baby shampoo) to soften and remove the thread of hard white rime that I’d never noticed before.  Do that morning and evening, use drops, and — hurrah — the eyes are comfortable again.

But then I got to thinking about the fluids of the face.  Sometimes if I’m a bit dehydrated, my skin shows wrinkles.  If I’m pushing water, my skin is smooth.  Under extreme stress, my cheeks get fat.  What I mean by fluids of the face are tears, snot, phlegm, drool, slobber, saliva, lymph, mucus — including both the inconvenient forms like edema (swelling), painful sinuses, or a drippy nose and the proper forms like the film on eyeballs, back-of-the-throat drainage of sinuses, and mouth moisture.  When I googled my list, what I got was Sjogren’s Syndrome.  

Besides a dry mouth and dry eyes, symptoms often included are fatigue and muscle ache.  In fact, this is a systemic disorder that overlaps a lot with other scary stuff like systemic lupus erythematosus (which my mother always insisted I had though I probably didn’t), rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma.  DNA analysis identifies at least five different risk-related major gene regions.  It appears that there are vulnerabilities that are activated by environmental challenges.  My body is programmed for rain and fairly consistent mild temps — not the wide swings of high prairie.

But systemic vulnerability can be subtle and hard to detect though there are tests for all the fluids: blood, spit and tears.  Progression or damage can be avoided by supplying artificial fluids like eye drops.  Eyes are the most vulnerable because the surface of the cornea needs to be lubricated to keep it from being scratched or eroded.  And they are the most obvious because eyes look at eyes and notice small differences, which is why people love eye makeup so much.

Fatigue is so internal, fought so hard when people want one to do stuff but meet reluctance, and so seemingly causeless, that it is another of those disorders that become a moral issue.  “Get off your lazy fat butt!”  This adds the molecules of emotions.

But who knows about the suspected culprits?  Even docs don’t.  Descriptions below are from Wikipedia and therefore anonymous, uncheckable.  I left all the links in since you might be seriously interested.  Also, I recommend the document I’ve got here for reference:  It starts with basics and then gets more complex until it’s for physicians.

Cell adhesion molecules (CAMs) are proteins located on the cell surface[1] involved in binding with other cells or with the extracellular matrix (ECM) in the process called cell adhesion. In essence, cell adhesion molecules help cells stick to each other and to their surroundings.
These proteins are typically transmembrane receptors and are composed of three domains: an intracellular domain that interacts with the cytoskeleton, a transmembrane domain, and an extracellular domain that interacts either with other CAMs of the same kind (homophilic binding) or with other CAMs or the extracellular matrix (heterophilic binding).

Lymphocyte homing receptors are cell adhesion molecules[1] which target addressins. Lymphocyte homing refers to adhesion of the circulating lymphocytes in blood to specialized endothelial cells within lymphoid organs, facilitated by diverse tissue-specific adhesion molecules on lymphocytes (homing receptors) and on endothelial cells (vascular addressins).

Addressin also known as mucosal vascular addressin cell adhesion molecule 1 (MAdCAM-1) is a protein that in humans is encoded by the MADCAM1 gene.[2][3][4]  Addressin is an extracellular protein of the endothelium of venules. Addressins are the ligands to the homing receptors of lymphocytes.[5] The task of these ligands and their receptors is to determine which tissue the lymphocyte will enter next. They carry carbohydrates in order to be recognized by L-selectin.

Free lymphocytes constantly recirculate in blood after their re-entry from lymphoid tissue, via lymphatic and thoracic ducts. This happens so that the full repertoire of antigenic specificities of lymphocytes is continuously represented throughout the body. Homing happens in tissue-specific manner—e.g. B lymphocytes migrate better to mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (Peyer's patches), and T lymphocytes preferentially to the peripheral lymph nodes.[2]

Peyer's patches (or aggregated lymphoid nodules, or occasionally PP for brevity) are organized lymphoid follicles, named after the 17th-century Swiss anatomist Johann Conrad Peyer. They are important part of gut associated lymphoid tissue and usually found in humans in the lowest portion of the small intestine, mainly in the distal jejunum and the ileum, but also could be detected in duodenum.

All this stuff is merely a minute account of how the bazillion molecules of your body interact to make you happen.  Few people will share over coffee that their “Peyer’s patches” are acting up, though they might be and it sounds important enough to have pleased my mother-in-law.  In fact, she was carrying the genes for vulnerability to colon diseases which might very well have involved her Peyer’s Patches.  Most of what our bodies do is controlled by the autonomic nervous system.  (“Auto”=by itself, uncontrolled consciously, and named for that —“nomic.”)  That’s the system that lie detector instruments are using for reference.

I resist docs who want to add more molecules to a systemic mix in hopes of making it do the right thing.  Bodies will often self-regulate if they remain a moving process.  It’s like regaining one’s balance after stumbling.  Pharmaceutic companies don’t like that idea.  

When I watched the film about Brazilian bull riders, I noticed that when mothers sent their children to bed they said,  “Brush your teeth and wash out your eyes.”  We should probably do that.

Here's another video, this time about the body as poetry.

Monday, November 28, 2016


One strategy for rising through layers of hierarchy is to specialize.  One might do that alone, but usually people tend to group themselves into new hierarchies, one of the specialists and one of the clientele.  Then another kind of specialization might arise among “critics,” meaning people who try to explain which is better than others and why.

Art is one kind of specialization of a universal human skill.  Everyone can see art, make art, think about art, but to different degrees.  Doing these things will cause their brains to grow neurons, the same as any practice will develop skill.  Skill IS growing neuron connections and their ties to muscles as well as developing the muscles themselves.  One becomes better able to hold and control a brush charged with pigment and to see how that results in marks.  The capacity to grow neurons and muscles, the responsiveness of the body itself, is called “talent.”

We have been aware that Time magazine and others have proclaimed that God is dead.  But we have not realized that since this imaginary ultimate authority has died, everything else that claimed God as its source and authorization must regroup.  In the past, artist’s talent has been assumed to  come from God.  Hierarchies were thought to be assigned by God and therefore the low cannot rise because God has his foot on their necks and the high are up there because God gave them a hand up.  

Now that these anatomical staircase metaphors are gone, artists are free to just step out of the system and they do.  (Actually, they always did but the best money for art was always paid by organized religion to embellish their greatness.)  In fact, through political defiance and simple “sin” artists have always cut the umbilical cord.  (Anatomy sneaks back!)  This forces “birth” in order to live.

But that separation does allow questions about what’s better, not in terms of money even though the opportunists will try to sell whatever art they can get at, but in terms of whether it “works,” whether it “communicates,”  whether it is a valid message about the universe.  Some art remains valid and some does not.  If it is tough enough to survive physically, it may go in and out of validity over centuries.
Here’s Bob Scriver’s sculpture of a bison, called “Herd Bull”.  He made it with a real bull buffalo in front of him, the one that was mounted in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, so it’s fact-based, measured, in scale except one-fifth the size of the real animal.  It’s not doing anything, but it’s standing there the way the real animal did.  Bob didn’t embellish or exaggerate — his goal was to be accurate and “real.”  It was the Fifties.  His fans had lived the history of the West, though none was old enough to have seen the big buffalo herds.  They valued buffs nostalgically, but particularly the metaphor of the dominant bull.  They wanted as near to participation and “genuineness” as they could get, an icon.

Here’s another version of a bison painted by Rocky Hawkins, an “abstract figuralist” or “figural expressionist.”  (Those’re just labels that try to describe style.)  He calls it “Drift” and the figure of the animal is at play with a snowdrift or maybe “drifting along” or maybe both.  The claim is that the very distortion of the figure gives it the reality of the emotion.

The point is that the subject, the approach, the artist’s experience and skill, the culture of the times, all influence how the value of the work is seen.  If “Drift” had been offered in the Fifties when people were used to the realism of Charlie Russell’s paintings of the West, it would have been mocked.  But now the realistic portrait of a specific bull by Bob Scriver might not even seem to be art, esp. since one can make an accurate computer-generated replica of any three-dimensional object.  Photography once seemed remarkable because it was an accurate replica — or so it seemed.  Now photographs that are “creative” might be valued more highly.

Appreciation for art has become many-lobed.  Younger, more “hip” lovers of Western art might like Rocky’s “Drift,” but there is still an audience for Scriver bronzes and “Herd Bull” shows up in auctions all the time.  For a while Western art critics didn’t exist and Western art wasn’t considered art, at least not “fine” art.  It was mere “illustration” though admired by many, and Helen Card was one of the few people to pay attention.  Then Harold McCracken, then Kennedy Galleries in Manhattan.  It took a while for customers to gather the courage to decide what had value for them.

Several forces helped.  One was biographies of major Western artists, especially colorful characters like Harry Jackson, another was the organization of Cowboy Artists of America which was basically a marketing co-operative, and another was that the men who had made their money through the development (you could say exploitation) of Western resources had collected art as a way of holding wealth and didn’t want to see their collections dispersed.  They founded museums all across the country.  At present the aging of these people and the stifling grip of certain art exploiters has brought the field to a kind of pause, not quite a standstill.

There are other subtle forces: a movement towards high-end architecture that is glass and stone — no walls to hang art.  Now some of the most potent art is literally moving: video.  Does one install a giant video screen over the fireplace to display one’s acquisitions?  Or does one keep the art in pocketed form, small format, to carry around.  How narrative does art have to be?  The early Western art was criticized for being “merely illustration.”  But most of the great paintings we know are storytelling.

Deeper than that is the movement to redefine wealth.  People are always asking how much this painting or that sculpture is “worth.”  The answer has to be “whatever someone is willing to pay to own it.”  We are dominated by the definition of “paying” as money shelled out by someone acquiring something to put in their space as proof of their significance.

But there is also a sense in which wealth is the ability to generate art, not because God dropped it out of the sky onto the artist’s head or sent a letter saying they were authorized, but because it was something the artist used his time and space to acquire, a part of his identity that comes from the gut.  Like any other work, it’s earned.

Good dog!

Sunday, November 27, 2016


When I checked out from the library “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg, I was thinking about the forces behind the presidential election, but it turned out to be yet another revision of US history in search of why people are losers.  The main guiding principle this time is NOT that stigma oppresses people, so it’s a political problem; nor that poverty is inescapable which is an economic problem; nor that people are wicked (drug takers, sexual renegades) which is a moral/religious problem; nxor that the particular resources of a place are a lid on prosperity which is what Jared Diamond suggests.  This time Isenberg points to the European serf system, as carried to the new continent by the British Empire Builders.  A subjugated class does all the work; a privileged class counts the money.

It’s an assumption that people can be sorted into a hierarchy.  Forget whether it’s assumed that people from noble families are better or that people who own land (landed gentry) are better or that people with a lot of money from profiteering (industrialism, exploitation of war, government subsidized advantages) are higher.  Forget whether college-educated people (NOT just people who got diplomas but those who actually learned) are better than high school level people.  I made a list of possible causes — which I’ll spare you because it would be better if you made your own list, or if a little group sat down to brainstorm a list — of all the ways a person could move higher up the hierarchy.  Or fall.  It’s likely to be very long once you get a grip on the concept.

What’s surprising is that it changes over the decades and centuries when new technologies (computers) or new natural conditions (rising sea level) or some new cultural valuing (ostentatious wealth, sexual revolution) enter the scene.  Sometimes it’s an obvious loss of wealth (freeing the slaves) and sometimes it’s something mysterious (the most recent Depression, which was a matter of book-keeping and gambling of intangible assets).  But the basic assumption is always that people sort out into layers and it’s better to be in one of the higher layers.

The tricky part is that what works in one set of circumstances, does not in another.  If a person in an immigrant group that still has clear borders were an elder, a leader, that person would be “up,” but as soon as enough of the next generation gets assimilated, educated and making money from outside the group, that leader will be pushed aside.  We see this even in the indigenous world of the reservation, but surprisingly often the next generation — the children of the assimilated people — will turn back to their grandparents and try to recapture their roots.  Suddenly the epithet “blanket-ass Indian” — meaning someone too poor and culturally backward to dress properly— is gutted when the practice of recognizing leaders and achievements becomes gifting them with “Indian” blankets from Pendleton or Hudson’s Bay.  (Quite expensive, actually.)

Recently an attempt by a religious group (Unitarian Universalists) which prides itself on being open-minded, progressive, and educated, was blocked by a neighborhood from acquiring a building because those folks assumed that religious people are low-class rabble-rousers who would attract unwanted attention.  We are in a time of social earthquake when the bottom becomes the top and no one is quite sure how to map the terrain.

Part of this dynamic is increased “empathy,” that is, awareness that there are suffering, barely surviving people, who can’t be ignored because they show up in National Geographic all the time.  They risk their lives to come over here, climbing our walls and slipping in under disguises.  They dress funny and their food is different.  But then those who are doing very well imitate their ethnic clothes and eat in their trendy restaurants — as though the people left to survive at home weren’t scraping by on our discarded t-shirts and NGO bulk food.  

Our own people just die in our streets, a pile of rags.

I try to remember that “all comparisons are odious” because it means someone has to be on the down side, often unfairly, but I blunder out of haste or insensitivity or just dumbness.  We are not all equal because we are not all alike.  But simple difference should not be an imposed burden.  Yet it is and much of our story-telling is about how to bear life, how to rise above challenges, and how to give a hand to others.  How to be loved because we are ourselves, which means stepping outside the hierarchy labels into actual relationship.

My ancestors on one side (Pinkerton) were stiff-necked Irish, prone to anger and violence.  (Yeah, those “detectives.”)  My grandfather on that side married a Cochran.  They were a wealthy family (woolen mills) and he was not considered good enough, which made him defiant at the same time that he used poor judgment out of wrath.  He had no sons, which could have been a source of rising, but resourcefully depended on education to raise the status of his daughters.  A nurse, a teacher, and one was meant to be a lawyer.  She wasn’t but her sons-in-law were because her daughters (she had no sons) married them.  “It’s as easy to love a rich man as a poor man,” she said.

My father’s family, Strachan, was not rich, but they were honorable in the conservative Scots way, which is also a source of social status.  They were homesteaders and then WWII raised up my uncles: a pilot, a draftsman, and a real estate broker.  But my father stuck to agriculture, even though he was the oldest and the only one with a college degree.  His failure in life came as a result of an automobile crash resulting in a concussion because he smashed the windshield with his forehead.  He accumulated a lot of books which gave him neighborhood status, but didn’t help him rise at work where he could never quite grasp what he was doing.  He never read the books or the piles of subscribed magazines.  (I did.)

Doubling back to the Pinkertons, with the educated daughters, they all married Hatfields who were landowners.  When I watch “Masterpiece Theatre”, I see their English faces.  Not French enough to be gentry.  Their land at the southern tip of Oregon's Willamette Valley is very much like English fields and forests.  The family lore is that the old original crafty Hatfield advised his sons to marry the Pinkerton girls because they were smart and smart is a resource.  (They mocked Old Pinkerton and saw him as deserving to lose his daughters.)  It was good advice but my mother chose a Strachan with a degree who had brothers.  No one could have predicted his trauma.

Temperament comes into it.  And always the gender-roles.  My mother was determined that I would have a bachelor’s degree and wanted it to be teaching, like hers.  When I went back to seminary, she became angry and belittling, because she didn’t want me to be “better than her.”  To her it was a betrayal of the social solidarity that proved her own value as a teacher.  She believed in the higher prestige of religion, but only for men and only Christian — I was moving “up,” which was such a source of her family’s quarrelling.  Ironically, I was UU, where my father attended as an atheist.  (If he ever attended.)

Beyond that, there is a nearly unconscious product of hierarchical aspiration that says “Don’t get too smart.  Don’t think you’re better than us.  If you fly too high, you’ll crash.”  (The old Icarus Complex.)  Ask an American Indian about that, or anyone else who escapes a stigmatized category but loses his feathers.  A fat person who tries to lose weight is often sabotaged by friends and family, because they don’t like change; they are afraid that the social marker of slimness will mean that person is above them now.  The movie “Working Girl” is all very well as movie fantasy, but in real life all those applauding secretaries will desert their achieving friend and resent her behind her back.

This presidential election, when interpreted in these terms, is fascinating.  Markers of class, entitlement to dominate, debts incurred and claimed, and the simple factor of appearance are all in play.  Republicans who are convinced they are wealthy because they are virtuous, have their “feet” cut out from under them when their secret lives are revealed.  Democrats who are convinced they are virtuous because they reach out to the poor, likewise turn out to be hypocrites.  Crime, or at least law-breaking, appears to have become a source of status.  Mafia rules apply, as they always do in chaos.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


The New York Times thinks that if they tease me with headlines they assume I want to read, then I will be provoked enough to subscribe to their newspaper.  They think I am like the people they know.  They don’t know that there are people who are not like them.  (See reference to monkeys’ ignorance in yesterday’s post.)  But I bounce off their teasing by googling the subjects of their headlines to find other sources for information.  

Sometimes the subject itself rebukes me harshly for not already knowing things about it.  Like today’s refusal to let me read Andrew Sullivan’s review of David France’s book version of a movie called “How to Survive a Plague” meant that I realized I’d never seen that movie, so I went to Netflix and watched it just now.  I looked at the numbers go by and watched the people age, both victims and Dr. Fauci who has been a prime medical spearhead, and I wondered why I didn’t know more about it at the time.  

It wasn’t until I began to “talk” on email with Tim Barrus that I understood that a huge and significant movement in the world had mostly passed me by.  I should have known, since in 1981 when the first signs appeared I was at the U of Chicago Div School, taking classes in medical ethics.  I don’t remember Don Browning ever saying anything about AIDS.  The cases we tried to resolve were about melanoma and major burns.  Just as agonizing, but not socially entwined.  “Behavior-related” sniffed senators who probably never had had real sex in their lives.  One would as soon kiss a lizard.

In my circuit-riding years I knew a minister with AIDS but no parishioners.  (We didn’t separate HIV and AIDS in those days.)  “Gay” was a different issue.  I’ve always known “gays” of many different kinds.  (I put quotes because I don’t see the category as being so hard-edged as some do.)  In Saskatoon the most stigmatized group was aboriginals, not gays, and the small UU fellowship did not want to address those issues.  Their primary worry was environmental.  The later UU “Welcoming Congregation” movement was about as much about growth as about justice.

In Portland in the ’90's the issues were blacks, drugs, and shooting in the streets — sort of muddled up together.  Back in Montana I was doing memoir and Western art bronzes until I got the bio of Bob Scriver finished and published:  “Bronze Inside and Out”.  Then there was a kind of space.  And Tim Barrus showed up.

There are cases, genetically proven, of “chimeras” created by two conceived blastomeres, twins, which began to develop side-by-side but then relented and resorbed one of them while the other went on to develop into a person with the nearly quenched one silently folded inside.  I’ve meant to develop that into a short story about people who sometimes seem to be two people and — actually — really are.  In fact, I’ve been accused of being two people myself: one that was compliant and cooperative and one who was outraged and uncontrollable.  It’s one of the things Barrus and I have in common.  People think one can control their internal chimera and make a moral issue of it.

We write.  We read each other’s writing.  We don’t agree.  My little town has grizzly bears in the night, following the edge of the lake.  His has mountain lions coming down to drink from the child’s wading pool he and his boys have put out to make an oasis.  We know forest fires.  Even the conflagrations of the heart.  

AIDS now is often a syringe disease: injectable drugs carrying virus into the blood.  Syringe disease, like all addictions, is a pain-based disease caused by poverty, failure, desertion, and being stuck in a life you hate.  Now we can see in the brain by using fMRI’s, both the craving addiction of the syringe drugs and the emotional suffering it’s trying to address, but doesn’t.  The official declaration that research finally shows this is what’s happening is at:

Basically, too many people in this country are miserable and they are miserable because they don’t have enough to eat, or proper shelter, or meds — not even for deadly diseases they can pass on to everyone else.  Not just HIV but also TB, Hep C.  Our leaders don’t care.  At least that’s the evidence.  And despite the valiant and mostly successful efforts demonstrated in the movie “How to Survive a Plague” or the efforts to stop the poisonous industrialism of a pipeline through drinking water in North Dakota — we don’t seem willing to open up to each other.  But healing addiction must be done in a group.

Barrus and I know that opening up is dangerous to ourselves and others.  Part of the misery of our country is the constant attacking and blaming of each other which has made a the shambles of our culture.  (Shambles once meant a butcher’s slaughterhouse.)  Some are trying to revive those assumptions, but they’re gutted.  

So how do we rebuild a culture of solace and growth?  Do you have to be told?  It’s the very thing we keep unfunding when money is short:  the humanities.  That’s why they’re CALLED that, because they create human values and explain and sustain them.  Stories, images, songs, and dances — those are the humanities.  When Boccaccio’s characters were faced with the plague that emptied Europe, they holed up and told stories.  People still read them.

I save everything I find that Tim wrote.  Such a packrat.  I save a lot of what I write, but I’m getting better at believing that writing is like “Bartholemew’s Hats” — do you remember that storybook?  How every time he took his hat off there was a more splendid one underneath it?  Most people who say they are writers don’t write very much.  Then they say they have writer’s block.  But they really have not-writer’s block.

For Tim and I it’s quite different.  The dialogue of the chimera in each of us is so intriguing to the chimera across from us, we just can’t stop with the hats.

Friday, November 25, 2016


Airplane in the Night

I go to my blog, “”, expecting it to look just as it did when I last closed it yesterday, but it’s entirely different.  I’m surprised, but then realize that it is a projection of a code structure devised by people far away and that if they want to change the instructions for the appearance or even the content, they can.  It is not paper.  They don’t have to steal it or burn it or shred it.  They just turn it off.  I have no control. 

When I remark on email at night that I can hear the C130 big planes in the air, practicing flight along the East Slope of the Rockies, I strongly suspect that it triggers a monitor somewhere and eventually someone will want to know why I’m noticing and relaying the information.  Am I a spy?

Before the recent presidential election, I would talk to people about Trump and point out cheesy behavior.  They would agree.  Then they would declare belligerently that they were going to vote for him.  I get the same reaction when I try to explain why I stay off Facebook:  it sells my personal info, it censors things it doesn’t want me to know, it rats me out to enemies, it protects lies and accommodates bad people if they’re rich, etc.  The person I’m talking to agrees with me and goes right on with Facebook.  They say,  “Everybody does it.”  These are smart people, but their reference group — the people they know and interact with daily — are not the same people as the ones I interact with, even in memory.

My reaction to the “neither of the above” situation of our election is not “OMG the end of the world”, but rather “what structures of our system are putting us into this kind of bind?”  Because this is not the first time.  It’s just happened at a global level.  It’s obvious that the forces at play are sometimes old, hangovers from the assumptions “we” brought with us from a warring Europe that had barely discovered a new concept called “nations” and then we tried to invent “democracy” — though we only intended it to be for old prosperous and well-connected white men, certainly not for slaves and women who would be irresponsible and swayed by promises.

But then, as things do, the forces of culture took over and everything unfolded in quite a different way.  Also, smallpox wiped out the indigenous American people in the same way that the Great Plague earlier wiped out the indigenous people of Eurasia.  Nature hates a vacuum.  And she balances repetition of the familiar against entirely new circumstances.  Nothing stays the same, which means small changes (mutations) in the “code” which means that evolution makes my blog look entirely different.  I have to learn where things are all over again.

I’m doing mix-and-match thinking here, because that’s one way to change perspective.  I get impatient with The Edge because they have a lot of old prosperous academic white men around, filtering.  But yesterday I found a talk that is at the heart of the problem.  (Edge #482: Glitches - A Conversation With Laurie Santos  It’s video, print and sound.  The idea is to figure out what evolved in the brain/mind to go beyond primates and create humans.  They do this by setting up little “plays” in front of monkeys and then figuring out from their actions what they thought.  Most of it is about stealing food, which is what monkeys do.

As it turns out, monkeys know what you know.  They don’t know what you don’t know.  If something happens while you’re gone but the monkeys are watching, they can’t tell you don’t know it.  People are the same way — they can’t tell what the other guy doesn’t know.  (Santos uses the word “ignorance.”)

Another “glitch” turns out to be that people are so influenced by other people, esp. the ones they admire, that if another person tries to solve a problem and goes at it wrongly, the second person will try that wrong way also, though it prevents them from solving the problem and they have the information they need to understand that.  Strangely, a dog or monkey will see you try to solve one of their dog/monkey problems wrongly, shrug it off, and succeed on their own terms.  So it appears that we have evolved the ability to observe and absorb what other people do mistakenly, even if thinking for ourselves would solve the problem.  This appears to be organically true of the brain, not just a cultural development, though awareness might help us break it.

Long ago when I first learned about atoms, they talked about little balls revolving around each other, sort of like the solar system except very small.  Now the research is indicating that there are no balls but rather “shells of energy” that make atoms that are differentiated by the even smaller “shells of energy” that are protons and neutrons in the nucleus while the electrons whiz around the outside, joining to other atoms or leaving entirely or arriving from nowhere.  These atoms clump and fold in unique ways to create molecules which our bodies control and are controlled by.  We have developed an ability to control and create molecules in a lab — with mixed results.

Every chair, every wall, is made up of these entwined shells of energy which are not solid but mostly space.  Yet we sit in the chairs and trust walls not to collapse on us.  Our bodies  — our bodies!  We trust them to breathe and think, but they are only molecules, evolving, unconsciously moving in processes we can’t perceive with equipment.  Everything is process.  And we CAN perceive them with equipment: thought is organic and resides in cells using molecules.

We had not thought that brains were a process or that they mutated and evolved, but we’ve been aware that people are different from each other and don’t agree.  We are not schools of fish nor even dog packs. 

Everything has structure, relationships, interactions.  In France a school of thought emerged that was about the construction of experience: how we piece together our experience into our individual and cultural assumptions about life.  Soon there was an opposite school of thought based on DEconstruction, based on what happens if you throw out all those assumptions and look for the deepest level possible.  Derrida is a name that comes up.  This was the state of the idea world when I hit seminary, where the task is to find the theological structures of religion and — to be frank — if you were an honored old academic white man, to defend them.  

But the scientific evidence of the world was revealing that many of those two-millennial-old ideas were wrong.  There is no king in the sky.  There is ecology wrapped in a various blanket around the planet, and it calls for different ways of being.  But this knowledge has not evolved into a way of guiding human culture politically that responds to feedback the way a proper ecology ought to.  So much of it is invented and persists only if it is constantly tended.

If we don’t, we wake up and discover that our blog looks different or just isn’t there, and OMG we’ve elected a president who didn’t get the majority vote.  We fear that our beloved family will leave in the night and our house will fall down.  In some places that is happening now.  Predator drones controlled far away with the same code that supports my blog.