Wednesday, February 21, 2018

WHAT I LEARNED FROM MEMORIAL SERVICES IN ROCKFORD IL

Rockford Illinois sunset

While I was in Rockford, IL, as summer minister and student hospital chaplain, I “did” three memorial services.  All three had something to do with babies, but only one was for a baby.

A couple who had a teenaged daughter discovered that the mother was pregnant.  Since all three people had plans, schedules, spaces, that had no room or time in them for an infant, they sat down together to decide whether to terminate the pregnancy.  They decided that a new life would be such a delight that they would simply rework their lives and they did, converting an office to a nursery, cancelling coveted work, and rethinking their life goals.  

But the baby girl died before the pregnancy was complete in spite of a C-section that hoped to save her.  The three were devastated.  Then they went to work to understand it.  The decided that this event in its demands and self-examination was a sort of message about their lives and that they ought to be grateful for new awareness.  The memorial was in their home with the fireplace for an altar.  They designed the service but asked me to deliver a homily, which I used to imagine a life for the baby -- her skinned knees, her graduation ceremony, her bridal gown.  It was the first time I ever heard Barbour’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess.”  With wry humour, friends provided a devil’s food cake and an angel food cake.  Who knows how that little beginning life would have turned out?

The second service was for a woman who was elderly and had been in a nursing home with a stroke for some time.  My practice was to go talk to the family about the person before composing the service, but no one seemed to know much about this woman except that she loved to play bridge.  A single mother, she had a son but he didn’t know much about his mother.  I inquired around the congregation to find who her friends were and finally made contact with them.

The story came pouring out.  The women in their eighties said “we were brides together”.  They told about a woman who had cared for her bedridden sister and mother for decades, remaining cheerful, giving, uncomplaining.  She had been born back East, sent to the best finishing schools and generally indulged.  The Depression wiped out the money and WWII wiped out her marriage.  From then on her life was largely drudgery in a nothing job.  But everyone insisted she had never had an unkind thing to say about anyone and she never got down in the dumps.  As St. Francis said, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.”  But it won’t make you rich or famous.

The third memorial service was for a man who had been told as a pre-schooler that his heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever so he should expect to die young.  But he didn’t.  When I went interviewing, I heard about a flower-grower who grew where he was planted.  He stayed on in the family home, caring for both parents until their deaths — because he unexpectedly went on living.  He was far from gloomy, a fine ballroom dancer as well as a good Swedish singer.

The most intriguing story I heard was that he had a policy of avoiding marriage because he wouldn’t live long enough to raise any children.  He would go a certain distance, even fall in love, but then withdraw.  There was only one time that it was very hard to break off from a woman he truly would have liked to marry.  I put this in the homily.

The service was in a funeral home.  At the end I got a little confused and went through a curtain that I thought was the entrance to a kind of waiting room.  Gratefully, I kicked off my heels, and stood catching my breath.  Then the funeral director directed the entire audience through that door and on to a room where refreshments were to be served, all of them filing past me and shaking hands, many of them older Swedish folks with rosy cheeks and sweet accents.

Even in my stocking feet I was taller than some of the ladies.  One pulled my head down so she could whisper in my ear, “I was the one he truly loved and wanted to marry!”  I hugged her and said how lucky she was.  Then down the line another woman did the same thing.  In the end there were half-a-dozen women who had secretly and confidently believed that they were this man’s true love.  He was a gardener of hearts, growing each with love even after breaking off.

I want to mention that one of the most memorable parishioners, a woman who had been a close confidant of Alan Deale, was Mabel Johnson, ninety years old and far from dead.  She was in the hospital for damage from a fall.  She had been a nurse in this very hospital since 1913.

During WWI she was an army nurse in France, working desperately with very little equipment in a tent hospital.  Deadly influenza was burning through the land and the doctor caught it.  The nurse working with Mabel said to her, “Mabel, there’s just this doctor and the two of us left.  There’s only one thing to do.  I’ll take care of all the men as best I can.  You stay right here and devote everything you have in you to saving our doctor.  We’ve GOT to pull him through.”  And Mabel did.

This next paragraph is quoted from my “Seminary Saga” journal.  “Mabel can identify the first moment she began to question theism.  A young soldier was brought in with his face covered in bandages.  Mabel unwound the bandage to see what kind of wound was underneath and the whole face came off in her hands, leaving a live, grinning skull.  Flooded with nausea, she stumbled out of the tent and threw up.  ‘There can’t be a God if He has the power to stop something like that and won’t do it.’

“Then she went back inside to stand beside the doctor and hand him the instruments while he tried to save the faceless soldier.  ‘You okay?’ he asked.  ‘Yes,’ she said.  ‘Good,’ said the doctor.  ‘It’ll never be that bad again.’”

When I was worn out and discouraged, I went to sit by Mabel and even if she were sleeping, I was renewed.

About this time Daisy Bingham, who worked in the office of First Unitarian of Portland, OR, sent me a big packet of sermons and clippings.  In the “Order of Celebration” on April 27 that year this was the unison reading.  I have no idea who wrote it.  Possibly Alan Deale.

To be deeply religious is
To have a passionate interest in the wholeness of existence,
To seek for the connecting tissue in the apparent
     separations,
To turn from disorder to seek the unity which lies hidden in
     diversity,
To pull hatred inside out and expose it as the dark side of 
     love,
To find no absolute end to the significance of life, not even in
     the event of death,
To seek to live less deformed and more gracious lives,
To have faith that at the center of it all is goodness and
     strength to enable us beyond our expectations,

And to turn our foolishness and evil into wisdom and beauty.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

CLINICAL PASTORAL EDUCATION IN ROCKFORD, IL: Memory

The Rockford UU Church designed by Belluschi

This Saturday, February 24, 2018, is scheduled for the memorial for Alan Deale, which is being held in Rockford, IL, where he so much enjoyed his prime years — as much when riding the lawnmower as collaborating with architects to build a church.  When I knew Alan he was in Portland, urging that church into the future.  When I decided to enter seminary, part of which was Clinical Pastoral Education, a grueling summer of service in a hospital, a penitentiary, or some other high pressure setting, I asked for Alan's advice on where to apply and naturally he said Rockford.

Throughout the summer — as throughout my four years of seminary (’78-’82) — I sent out a weekly one-page single-spaced essay in a sort of proto-blog.  I have those pages in two binders at my side right now.  I’d been thinking about quoting these materials and this seems a good time to do some of that, maybe for a couple of days.

As student chaplains, we visited room-to-room with patients, responded to emergencies, did a lot of reading, and sat in a circle to discuss it all and plumb the depths of ourselves — not theology.  And the looming issues of parenting.  One author, a man named Elliott, suggests “that there are basically two kinds of human love: the kind of unconditional love, equal love that a mother gives, and the kind of respectful love that can only be earned by performance . .  . If a person has been forced to try to earn love, his life will be marked by a kind of chronic anxious insecurity.  On the other hand, if a person had been illicitly given respect without having earned it . . . he may well (have an) inability to know how to gain appropriate respect from others and from himself. . . “  This idea has become near-dogma for a lot of people.  Elliott suggests that the cultural problem of the time was weak and absent fathers, perhaps connected to the death of God, which was actually the death of the WWII culture of Generals in wartime, the death of heroism.

There was another death, at least an attempt to strangle pride.  I sort of addressed it this way.  “I — like many Unitarian-Universalists — have very high standards of behavior.  I rarely drop out any of these “rules.”  I still find it very important to be on time, honest, chaste, hard-working, etc.  And as I’ve come more and more into contact with modern psychology, I have only added more rules: self-acceptance, congruence, the ability to be a limited human.  This leaves me with a Catch-22: how to be brilliant and humble at the same time.  How to cover all the bases without getting myself stretched so thin that my personality starts to crack."

"I’ve been very hard on myself.  But I’ve also been hard on patients who wouldn’t try, peers who seemed to be underachieving, nurses who shirked, and — more than anything else — authority figures who were neurotic and bumbling.”

“. . . it’s been very hard for others to accept my almost punitive idealism.  If a minister has an obligation to be an exemplar — and I believe he or she does — then what freedom do I have to choose my own way, particularly if it is so rigorous that others are intimidated instead of inspired?  Must I lower my standards in order to be good enough to be a minister.”  (I left congregational ministry in 1988.)

This is pretty amusing — the grandiose pretentiousness of it — but it becomes more relevant when considering our present politics.  The Reverend Harris Riordan, who was with us at Meadville but then transferred to Union in New York City, was pretty hip to a lot of things.  (She’s been the minister in Boca Raton for many years.)  She had a theory.  “Every woman she knows who has been a little older, a little experienced, and the veteran of a little therapy, has had a very bad time with CPE.  Harris believes this is due to the fact that CPE was originally designed for ministerial candidates who were very uptight young men whose mothers had carefully taught them never to have “bad” emotions.. For them, CPE still works.  In fact, many of the supervisors are uptight young men who fell in love with the opportunity to get angry, sad, or ecstatic — because they hadn’t known it was an option before.  For them to face a raging forty-year-old, who has read more books than the supervisor has, is to be thrown into the teeth of a dragon.”

My supervisor said I was “the angriest, stubbornest, most complicated and resistant person he’d ever met.”  If you consider this in terms of the ethnic women now coming into the UU realm, refusing the authority of white males, this is rather explanatory.  I doubt this supervisor knew many Latino or black women.

While I was in Rockford, I “house-sat” in three different homes.  The first was Leny Van Roojen’s, the second was David Weissbard’s, and the third was the Oehlke’s.  The family included a small boy named Kahn, who was adopted from Vietnam.  Last night I googled everyone and was shocked to see that Kahn is now forty!  Leny Van Roojen has passed on.  They tell me that Rev. Weissbard is enjoying a bit of pulpit supply though he’s observed his fifty year anniversary of ordination.

The Oehlke house had a swimming pool — not a fancy gunnite one, but rather a cement block dugout with a vinyl liner.  Nevertheless, it had the immense luxury of raspberry bushes that grew out over the water, so that one could float and pick berries at the same time.  And the fireflies, those magical insects, abounded.  It was magical.

This was the first time I’d slept in a waterbed, heated to blood temperature.  The bedroom was an upstairs screen porch, open on three sides to treetops that rustled all night in the breeze.  In memory I connect this house to a night I was on-call, sleeping in a chilly basement room in the hospital in order to respond quickly to emergencies.  The Rockford hospital was a regional hub for babies so desperately in trouble that they arrived by Life Flight.  

On this morning before dawn a baby came with her father who wanted her to be baptized immediately in case she died.  The mother was too ill to travel so we didn’t know her wishes.  Brushing aside dogma about UU’s not baptizing, the father and the nurses on duty in infant ICU made a little circle around the isolette.  There was no stone font of Holy Water: the nurse handed me a sterilized cotton ball dipped in distilled water.  

Just as I squeezed a few drops onto the tiny wizened creature, the sun burst over the horizon and flooded the room with light.  I said, “This is the day the Lord has made.  Let us be glad and rejoice in it.”  


In a while I went home to that near-amniotic floating bed in the treetops and gladly slept.  (The baby survived.)  That was in Rockford, IL., a place where I touched the Sacred.

Monday, February 19, 2018

FROM HERE I CAN SEE HEART BUTTE

The original impulse for this post was the front page of the Glacier Reporter, the Blackfeet Reservation weekly.  But I couldn't get the photo of the Heart Butte Warriors basketball team wearing straight-up bonnets to come away from the newspaper, so I'll just give you a link, and substitute a photo of Mouse Hall, Blackfeet rodeo patriarch.  He's related to the coach in the story.  At least I got the quote to move by re-typing it. 

http://www.cutbankpioneerpress.com/glacier_reporter/

"Mouse" Hall

“We’ve faced adversity sometimes”,  Kellen Hall said.  “It’s been very strange as a coach and for the players.  There’s been so much trauma — we’ve dealt with deaths left and right.  I lost my mom at the beginning of the season, and three of my players have lost close relatives, too. I’m trying to balance that out and still keep discipiined and motivated.”  “The best way is to find a destination through the devastation so we can put trivial things aside.”

Kellen Hall has coached basketball for ten years in Browning, all ages from elementary to graduation, because basketball is “a combination of things, but mainly to give back to the community.  What I like best about it is seeing the kids progress and get better and emulate the lessons we teach in our lives and put them to use.” . . .”We work a lot on character.  We have Words of the Day, things to put into their everyday lives and what that means to us and to building on that philosophy.”

The “second” names of these kids (not the “last” names) are Arrowtop, DeRoche, Spoonhunter, Kipp, Main, Young Running Crane, Aimsback, Tailfeathers.  And the coach’s name, “Hall,” are all like ringing bells to me.  I taught in Heart Butte 1988-91 and was the entire English department for a while, because the high school was just starting up.  We had planned for a few dozen kids and enrolled sixty right away, partly because it was a new way to play high school basketball, the key to achievement on the rez.  




Heart Butte is up in the foothills of the Rockies.  At the moment the access road is probably impassable, as are many highways in Montana today.  A blizzard just hit and another one is due tonight.  Snow is always a problem, esp. with high winds, but the real problem for Heart Butte has been isolation due to gumbo roads, because the soil is fine volcanic dust from the Pacific Northwest volcanoes forming 5 to 7 million years ago.  Formally called caleche, it immobilizes wheels, which is why travois were preferred.

When the US government insisted on allotting formal land ownership (except that it was all “in trust” so the “owners” had no control) it was bands of old-timers who chose to be in Heart Butte, because they understood hunting and that’s where the animals were.  The names on this basketball string are tied to those days, translations to put on paper.

The history of this team doesn’t just go back to the founding of the high school or even the beginning of the community.  It doesn’t just go back to travois days, back and back and back.  The high school could be started because of the Flood of 1964 wiped out all the dirt roads and provisional bridges and in the rebuild afterwards, the roads were finally engineered and paved.  Suddenly it was possible to commute to jobs in Browning but also kids could travel.  Like for sports.

Blackfeet were considered rather Puritanical in the very old days.  Even in the Sixties when the Pentecostal preachers came through, they taught that the basketball uniforms of the time were indecent — short shorts.  They also taught that eyeglasses were against nature.  The administration whites, at the same time, taught that braids had to be cut off.  Authorities are always imposing rules that are markers.  The superintendent when I was there had a “thing” about hats.  Had to take ‘em off indoors.

That superintendent, like most in Montana, was a coach.  He didn’t know much about humanities or sciences or teaching methods.  He just wanted to put on the pressure for winning.  I’ve never quite recovered from hearing about a Montana coach who did that by telling his boys to imagine that the opposing team just raped their mother and murdered their little sister — the only way to retaliate was to win the game at any cost.

We know the cost now: twisted hearts, concussed brains, joint injuries.  That’s besides the parasitic sellers of gear, trophies, photos, buses that can travel far because they have on-board lavatories like airplanes.

The bonnets in the photo on the front page of The Glacier Reporter might or might not be “war” bonnets.  They are in the old Blackfeet “straightup” style rather than the fanned out Sioux headdresses.  There must be money somewhere to have bought the materials, but — more than that — awareness and skill to make them.  I suspect it comes from the women, the grandmothers, who wore their husband’s bonnets because if you have a prized and powerful possession, the safest place to put it is on your wife’s head.  She will be very proud.

Theda Newbreast and Betty Cooper

Interestingly, Betty Cooper and her daughter Theda Newbreast have been key renewers of the old ways in Heart Butte, wangling a tribal buffalo and helping to cut up to share a feast.  Arriving at events wearing straight-up bonnets.  Even more interestingly, there are often sets of sisters on the rez who are important, sometimes all becoming teachers and school administrators, mothers and grandmothers of achievers.  Behind these sister clusters are often fathers who supported achievement and protected their descendants, which was the origin of the band-structure of the Nitsitahpi who lived on the land in a renewable way by going to and fro according to the seasons and the food sources.

It takes sharing generations to keep focus and keep returning again and again through time for the People to persist.  Today I’m the age of the grandparents — even great-grandparents — of this basketball team.  I can’t do the cats-cradle genealogies because I’ve been away for decades and I can’t remember names anymore.  But I remember those recent ancestors and their kindness to me.  The grandmothers of a few of those students in the Sixties, had survived what is called the Bear River Massacre in 1870, more familiarly known as the Baker Massacre.  A sadness and pain, abided like that after the Big Flood.  It was an awareness of vulnerability, maybe.  

But about that time in the Sixties, things began to turn around.  The class of 1961 included Darrell Kipp and Eloise Cobell, along with idealistic others.  On their walls were photos of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and rock stars — people of possibility who transcended boundaries.  They were not hate based, though some of them were very angry.  It takes generations to find the path.


In the above story the VEVO clip is a Blackfeet story.  Valier is just over the rez boundary.  I can see Heart Butte from here.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"BLOOD STRIPE": Review

Renée Auberjonois, Kate Nowlin Auberjonois, Reny Augerjonois

Renée Auberjonois has been a favorite of mine since he portrayed the shapeshifter on “Star Trek”, but I never wrote about him because I couldn’t spell his name.  Now I’ve practiced until I can.  But I still hadn’t realized that Reny Auberjonois was his son or even that he had a son.  Partly I was confused because in the movie “Blood Stripe”, which I watched last night, was written and directed with the son’s wife Kate Nowlin but Renée acted in the film as the kind of insightful and supportive clergyman that we’d all hope is out there — somewhere.

This is a film about PTSD, the formal kind suffered by Marines who have been in combat, with the twist that the sufferer is a woman, and the environment — family, camp, Minnesota lake country — really is menacing, double-crossing, exploitative, punishing for no reason.  The exceptions are the woman who runs the camp and the clergyman.

I don’t know about other women — I never know much about other women — but the world I’ve known is not different in kind, only degree, from the world of this “BAM” (Broad-Assed Marine).  Both my brothers were Marines, but they didn’t talk about it much.  They never saw combat after basic training.  As sibs we are more wary than paranoid, but — rather like this heroine — danger attracts us more than is sensible or self-protective.  And we (one is dead) have been isolates.

The beginning of the film is a remarkable explosion of the expectations stereotyped in advertisements.  No one meets her at the airport, her husband seems only interested in dominating and guilting her, the sister-in-law demands and orders incessantly and chaotically.  Yet the heroine tries to be the good soldier who obeys orders until she breaks and goes AWOL.  Even then, she yearns to go back — not a good idea — and anyway they’ve closed the door against her.

The “blood stripe” is the red stripe down the trouser-seam of the Marine dress uniform.  That metaphor may have been the key that unlocked the idea for the whole film.  In the beginning she only bleeds a little from her nose — maybe high blood pressure?  Then as the tension grows, the blood drips more and more.  No wound is shown.  Water washes the blood away.  Until water washes the life away.

I don’t know whether other women have a “second self”, someone athletic, skilled and able to handle weapons.  An echo idealized.  Someone with freckles and red hair like oneself.  A beautiful jaw-line, unlike oneself.  Maybe people around here believe in and know a third “self”, which is a sturdy competent woman who works hard to provide for church and children: scrubbing, baking, organizing.  (Rusty Schwimmer has the role.)  I look a bit like her, too, but am really nothing like that.  To the dismay of folks who don’t want to read confrontive writing, who avoid anything troubling or ugly.  They feel tricked by my appearance.  Bulky women in work shirts and jeans are either moms or lesbian, right?

Not many have the experience of being clergy, doing all the right things, inviting prayer, lighting candles, invoking happy memories of the past — but it’s not enough.  It’s admirable and pleasant in the moment, but it doesn’t save lives from the real juggernaut of cultures, which in this case is gender-assigned.  I mean, all the threats are male.  To some women there is no such thing as a “good” or safe man.  Their paranoia is that a wolf-whistle on the street is a signifier of impending attack.  Yet their idea of safety is a protective liason with a dangerous man.

The plot line of this film follows this pattern and it is convincing.  We all see things out of our “side-eye” and wonder whether we ought to address them.  When I drove a drab-green van and affected a safari jacket with a Glacier National Park patch on the shoulder, I passed on the highway a pull-off where a man evidently had a woman trapped in the open door-angle of a car.  She looked distressed.  I pulled up alongside and said in my animal control officer voice,  “Everything all right here?”

“It’s fine.  We’re fine.”  But I’d created an opportunity in which the woman managed to get behind the wheel of her car and take off.  I left, too, so the man was simply standing alone, stranded.  I never knew what was really happening.  For every time I’ve been accidentally an interventionist and it worked, there have been times when it didn’t.  Sitting inside a running vehicle with the door locked and the window half-up is not much of a risk.  The best weapon is sometimes the other person’s paranoia.

The impulse is to avoid, abstain, never do the things that a careful clergyman would caution against: lying, stealing, cursing, forcing intimacy.  But this is not particularly helpful to the culture.  I hear many people say they won’t even vote because the whole political thing is a shameful mess.  When there is trouble in congregations, people leave.  Realization ought to be the first step towards empowerment, not desertion.

This film depiction is not ugly or overbearing.  We see the scars on the woman's body, gradually realize the scars in her mind, and understand why she would simply set out swimming in what looks like eternity.  The people who fear suicide are often fearing the death of their way of life, their identity, rather than the biological end of their inner life.  What they underestimate is the blood-letting from those who love them.  And the despair and guilt of not being able to save them.

Some reviewers complained that this film was “too spare,” maybe wanting some authority to step out and explain it all.  They wanted the ex-con’s love to save this woman.  They wanted the clergyman or the good cook to say the definitive salvific thing.  But that’s a Christian idea.  This is more Asian, Buddhist or Taoist.  But it is also related to the existentialism of France after WWII.  Probably earlier thinkers if someone would lift them up.  Heraclitus?

Spareness is a kind of beauty and the cinematography here (Radium Cheung (HKSC) - Director of Photography) makes the immanence of nature also express the transcendence of eternity.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

THE CROTCH KICKER



This is about a school shooting that didn’t happen.  It’s very hard to figure out how to write about it since it was partly dumb luck, partly imaginary, partly only potential, and an example of how I failed.  It happened over a decade ago, not in this town and not on the rez, but close enough that people will know where I live.  Not many read blogs, esp. the long-form ones like this.

A boy was transient, genetically attached to an oil field laborer who may or may not have married the long-gone mother.  He was not in foster care.  He was small and furious, not in any of my classes.  One lunch time, after most of the students had left, he began pursuing boys and kicking them in the crotch as hard as he could.  I wasn’t on monitor duty, but I collared him and took him to the office.  He didn’t quite dare to kick me, but he argued profanely at the top of his voice.  He felt very righteous about the whole sequence of events.  Everyone fell back ahead of us and got as far to the sides as they could when we passed.

The principal was a woman who grew up in a right-wing community.  She despised me, partly because I’d taught on the rez, partly because she had been an English teacher with poor skills but high pretensions and knew I had a reputation for writing, partly because the superintendent had hired me over her wishes.  He hired me in the mistaken belief that because I had taught on the rez I could handle rough boys in a class that regularly drove off teachers because they figured their athletic skills made them more valuable than any teachers — and they were right.  

The principal didn’t know what to do with this boy.  He denied that he had ever kicked anyone.  (The kicked boys, who may have been bruised at least, were only concerned that their parents didn’t find out and that the other guys wouldn’t make fun of them.  They wouldn’t give me their names.)  She almost believed him.  She would have liked to kick me.

This hard to write about because I sympathize with all parties involved from THEIR points of view and life dilemmas, including my own.  I had come back rather recently, having been assured of a job with a local newpaper — which was sold within months and disappeared.  I had been hired because the owner didn’t want to make an enemy of a local when he sold.  I considered myself a local.  From then on I was an enemy.  He hadn’t expected that.  He didn’t count the rez as “local.”

This boy had had a toxic reaction to a situation others were surviving more happily.  For instance, one boy’s parents had divorced and the mother left, the boy stayed on in the house with the father and the second much-younger wife, but then the father left for a better job and the younger wife — who was really quite kind to the boy — got bored and also left.  The boy was now in the house by himself and had a big steak for every dinner because it was the only thing he knew how to cook, thanks to barbequing.  He wanted to stay because he was one of those athletes.

Teachers who have signed contracts can be sued if they quit before the end of the year.  I was saved when a boy jerked off in class.  I quit then.  The school board did not want to sue because it would have made a lot of things suddenly public.  Also, because they were Christian and thought that I’d been a minister of the Christian kind, so they assumed that I quit because of prudery over the “indecent” act.  

I was concerned about what “bad wiring” caused such bad judgement on the part of the second boy.  (It was a seductive single mother.  He was the image of his terrifically powerful and charismatic father.  The other kids explained it to me.  When I finally observed that man from a distance, I saw what they meant.  He never contacted me.)  I went to Child and Family Services in that county, discovered that the director was the mother’s best friend, and finally drove to the nearest big city to discuss the matter with the state office when they wouldn’t respond to the phone.  I have no idea what happened after that.  The boy went off to college and that’s the last I heard.

The mother, who had been doing a little work for the superintendent, was afraid of me and my criticism but we did talk.  By now, the superintendent, the principal, and the coach have all left.  It was years ago.

(Today the story about Nikolas Cruz is reporting that his neon signals of trouble — talk of shooting, torturing animals, bragging about alliances, “cutting” himself — were all known by the kids and had been reported to all possible authorities. from police repeatedly responding to his step-mother’s house to the school suspending him to complaints to the FBI.  They had become habituated.)

After I left teaching, the crotch-kicker came to school with a gun in his backpack and was expelled.  The father moved away and took him along.  The school didn’t take state that year, but it wasn’t the fault of the kids not trying.

Once I had decided to quit but hadn’t left yet, I let that class of troublesome boys talk while I listened.  They were impassioned.  They told stories, they drew diagrams to show the dynamics of the town and how much they hated them.  In the end they did know they were being used, exploited, for the reputations of the town fat cats.  They talked violence and indignation.  They didn’t want parents to know because parents are childish and easily hurt and they might get so upset that they divorced which would ruin everything.

All authority figures were stupid and negligent.  Their interventions were clumsy and off-the-point.  What counted was the other guys and the special relationship with an indulgent girl who would mother them.  If that girl threw them over, they considered suicide.

What to do with all of this?  I started a novel called “Prairie Gladiators” but my own innards were still too unsettled.  I did find comfort in the image of Russell Crowe brushing his hand through the glowing heads of wheat.  This is wheat country.  While the shrinking towns of rural Montana were wrestling with the problems of power, success and relationships, the rez folks were coming to life, growing.  Gangs and drugs were part of it, the Town of Browning was disincorporated, but things were happening.

I read once about how caterpillars turn into butterflies.  They don’t just switch parts around as though they were having a sex change.  For a while they are only a soup of molecules re-forming and unrecognizable.  I hope this is a legitimate way to understand our shifting and often lethal society.

Friday, February 16, 2018

SCHOOL SHOOTINGS ARE ONLY SYMPTOMS



Every mass shooting becomes another round of frothing and curses about guns along with declarations from a certain kind of disempowered man that if HE’d been there and if HE’d had a gun, he’d have cut the killing short.  But all guns do is extend and intensify the violence that is always around the edges of human circumstances, esp. as the numbers, density and varieties of humans keep increasing.  

Somehow predator drones coming out of the sky like dragons to destroy families and villages doesn’t offend us, but one or two disturbed teenagers with powerful guns, entirely unpredictable, stir up fantasies.  So I want to take a different approach.

I notice how many of these shootings are in schools, churches, movie theatres, and homes.  No doubt because that’s where there are a lot of targets, but consider that they are — to the uneducated — institutions that impinge on and presumably order and guide lives.  What If the real source of the outrage is the failure of institutions, even the police.  I confess, which will probably get me on some list, that I’d like to turn a fire hose on Congress since they are the biggest failing institution in the nation.  The Wall Street stock market could also use a drenching.

These institutions are only proximate causes of our distress: out-of-date, underfunded, full of alligators.  This is because institutions, organizations of all kind both idealistic like Oxfam and destructive as the NRA (which we now discover has been hosing the Repubs with Russian money) are emergent.  The KKK emerges from scared old men who ghost us with bedsheets and torches.  The Red Cross emerges from people who are responding to suffering.

The deeper problem now is that our understanding of the universe — which ought to give rise to a potent and surging energy for synthesis into institutions that can protect and explain human beings — the raw material for “religion” — is blunted and diverted.  Instead of churches being organized groups of people sharing an ethos, we have shattered into individual screen-watchers who admire the anti-hero for at least taking matters into his or her own hands — like a school shooter.  More Peer Gynt, Conan, and Rambo than Robin Hood, but nothing new.  We’ve been through this cycle before.

But there are variations.  The levels of society which used to be purely economic and inheritable as God-given, still has that practical pousse-café aspect of layering, but there are maybe more layers and from different forces.  For instance,  we have a great many people who came suddenly into tech fortunes that they can barely control, like Mark Zuckerburg wrestling with his own algorithms and unexpected consequences.  Wikipedia is controlled by a hundred male Ivy League mandarins with all their contempts and eunuch aesthetics.  Our ideas of wealth are in the Midas terms of everything gold, poor person’s vulgar notions of fine things.  Our ideas of sex are obedient women six feet tall, bleached blonde, sixteen-years-old with cheekbones from the Ukraine and eye makeup bought online.

In terms of academia we have created compartments of knowledge that few can understand, like all the French post-colonial theorists that — half-understood — justify a lot of moral indignation on the part of the oppressed.  Just across the quad are the cosmologists, the deep cell biologists who can “crisp” DNA, the pre-writing history of the hominins written on the land and deep in caves.  These people talk over the heads of the ordinary dope slumped in front of his huge TV on couches with built-in beverage holders.

Simmering on the front stoop are the “brown” people with rich heritages that are brushed aside except as plot devices on the endlessly unspooling police procedures.  They sell self-snuffing drugs to the lost people who pull up at the curb in cars better than they can afford.

The computers show maps: maps of where oxycontin is sold, where meth is coming back, where the water is running out, who votes red and who votes blue.  On the right-hand side of this blog is a little “cluster map” of who’s reading this at the same time as you and where they are.  Sometimes I write something that makes Russia light up.  Other times it is Argentina.  I never know why.  Are they using it for bot material?  This is a good day for them.

The biggest irony of the maps is that the Russian oligarchs protect themselves from jealous not-so-rich Russians by hiding their gazillions in America.  If we froze them and seized them, the Russians would murder Putin.  That would be worse than the trade sanctions that Trump sold for his election without even realizing what he was doing or what the consequences would be.

I could go on and on and people would enjoy it.  We all itch and burn with the way things are going.  There will be a lot of big-time losers before this is over.  Some will win by a shoelace.   https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/how-rabbi-ties-his-shoes

Here’s Jeremy Rifkin’s grand plan:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX3M8Ka9vUA  What is invisible to most of us is the fact that most of what we do is simply on paper: constitutions, rules of law, contracts, and money.  They are only consensus summaries.  Trump and his cohort regularly ignore the law, ignore any penalties, while the Repubs are like statues.  They look.  They do nothing.  They begin to die of old age.

Most people will not watch this vid linked above.  Too scary.  Goodby Manhattan.  Goodby elephants.  Hello young people.  Shooting up schools and churches will do you no good.  Try to preserve a free Internet.  Start the search for a new paradigm.  On reservations, in urban towers, at sea — anywhere.  

But I think Rifkin falls short.  He’s putting too much of his hope on the Internet, which is far too easy to distort and destroy.  We’re running out of palladium for smart phones just like we’re running out of fossil fuel.  (His admiration for Wikipedia gives him away.  He doesn’t know that that software didn’t come out of idealism — it came out of porn marketing software.  Connecting the kinks.  In the end he only knows his own world.)

The real source of energy is our human relation to the world, our awe and wonder, our love of what is, our determination to share it generously.  The bleak, vodka-soaked world of central Eurasia and the rancid narcissism of the American dregs are a drag on the system, a source of frustration that ends in shooting of children.

There’s a psych concept called a “leap to sanity.”  When a person gets to the limits of their craziness, maybe in an emergency like the house on fire, their brain snaps to effective function.  But when the fire is out, the craziness comes back.  I think Rifkin is in that leap, which is not the same thing as being wrong.  He DOES know there are new sweeping amazements coming.  On paper.  How do we make them real?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

WHAT ARE HUMANS THAT ANYONE SHOULD CARE ABOUT THEM?

The hero in storage

Now that we’ve got that pesky image of the all-powerful old white man out of our heads (though not out of our lives) it has become clear that what really needs to be reframed is our theory of what human beings are and can be.  Sci-fi, poetry, and alternative lifestyles have been working on it ever since.  Are we animals?  Are we machines?  Are we each other?  Are we our own worst enemies?  Are we the better angels of our souls?

Yes.  Yes to everything.

I’ve been marathon watching “Altered Carbon” which I began because of a discussion of CGI environments in sci-fi  about “Oblivion”, featuring Tom Cruise in an early knock-off of Bell bubble-cockpit helicopters.  It sounds a little dumb, but it was interesting — even quite beautiful — and Morgan Freeman, who seems to be channeling the Angel Gabriel in most of his films, was under control.  Of course, all the ruins are from Manhattan, because that’s the gateway to everything.  

Altered Carbon” uses the archetypal “Bladerunner” crowded streets where it always rains.  Though we’ve gotten rid of God and angels, we still have the filthy rich and the out-of-control police.  No Morgan Freeman, but a racial mix with an emphasis on the Pacific Rim.  Actually, when you think about it, these are the “brown” people, a blending of Asians, Africans, and Americans — but not indigenous Americans, which is a grievous omission.  (A red-headed Irishman shows up briefly among the rebels.)

This film is billed as “cyber-punk” which some reviewers contest, but to me it just looks like another CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) show.  The CGI (Computer Generated Images) element on steroids really is remarkable, esp. in the beginning.  The images of the city by night, obligatory in police procedurals, are gorgeous.

I was attracted by the Swedish actor, Joel Kinnaman, whom I got to know in “The Killing” where he played a sort of hip, semi-detached guy who said “snap.”  Kinnaman has an almost Brando-esque density and impassiveness, even when being tortured and while fucking.  He’s still a chain-smoker, but doesn’t break off the filters like the little banty rooster cop in “Trial and Retribution.”  Inscrutability is characteristic of law enforcement roles, even when the enforcer is not a cop, like “Person of Interest”.  In fact, cops I’ve known have cultivated this unreadability, this reserve of judgment.  It's part of the craft.

There are exceptions. “Hawaii 5-0” plays against the stoic with emotional relationships, including family ties.  (Among the acting pool, I was surprised to spot a younger Teilor Gruggs, who plays “Danny’s” daughter. And to glimpse McGarrett’s danceway lover.)  In "T and R", David Hayman performs the irony of rage and indignation in a man too small to punch people.  But the big-man style of leading man goes back as far as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke”.  It looks to me that Kinnamon has bulked up quite a bit since “The Killing.

So the genre of “Altered Carbon”, besides the sci-fi category, is police procedural and the plot tropes follow those well-worn paths, which is fine since it means you can keep track of a rather convoluted rationale about minds and koans.  The wise old guide is a Latino women, proposing a kind of California Zen.  She preaches detachment, alternate realities, gaming jiu jitsu, dissociation, multiple selves.  Reincarnation comes along for the ride.  The Incan prop-man’s preoccupation with severed heads persists.  So do coffee and the f-word.

By episode 7 we’re into Robin Hood, the Resistance, Underground, Guerrilas, Terrorists.

Most police procedurals and some sci-fi are focused on society, which at least one reviewer thought fell short in this example.  But I think they were reaching for some kind of religious reconciliation among named institutional religious dogma:  Christianity, Buddhism, and so on.  Not Gaean nature-based constructs until the rebellion.  Sci-fi necessarily has to be about a manufactured world.  The advantage of “Game of Thrones” is that it reaches back to the formation of the big religious constructs.


The echoes of Trump et al are clear, probably not because they’re patterned after the individuals individually but because the pattern is so clear and becoming clearer every day.  The economist Krugman says he recognized it clearly.