Wednesday, February 29, 2012


 Last night, at the UVU Library Auditorium, courtesy of Alex Caldiero's Happenings in Humanities, Jennifer Miller, "The Bearded Lady" of the Coney Island Seaside Sideshow, performed.

I left the auditorium a different person from the one who had entered it an hour earlier.

For one thing, laughter changes a person for the better; and there was lots of laughter involved. In the lead-up to juggling three "razor-sharp machetes," Ms. Miller knocked over the microphone, kept dropping the knives, stopped to ask if the people in the front row had insurance, tripped and fell, and then juggled the knives as skillfully as she juggles gender. 

It was a combined side-show performance and gender-studies lecture, personal and theoretical and profound (and profoundly funny).

 She began the performance with a recital of Ginsberg's HOWL, the Holy section in which everything is declared holy, including "the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas."

"Circus Amok is a New York-based, one ring, no animal, queerly-situated, political circus spectacular.  We’ve been touring the parks of New York City for 18 years.  We are jugglers, acrobats, stilt dancers, puppeteers, writers, theorists, sculptors, painters, and musicians."

A clip of a section of the show, close to the one we saw, here:

"Circus Amok is thriving in its eighth year of reinventing the circus form, borrowing drag fabulousness from Charles Ludlam’s Theater of the Ridiculous, large scale transformation using whole-body masks from Bread and Puppet Theater, and the outdoor bally and verbal rhythm and repertoire from the sideshow, as well as movement vocabulary from post-modern dance. The troupe balances danger with laughter, slipping its critique between the pies in the face and the surreal, scary, and sometimes gender-bent characters of the charivari."  –Mark Sussman, in Disturbing the Peace: 20th Century Radical Street Performance, 2001

To end her show last night, Ms. Miller showed a clip of a street performance of the Circus Amok in which a couple of New York City nannies have left their employers, rich women who come looking for them because someone has to watch the children while they go on a cruise and there are no other candidates who will work for as little as these illegal immigrants who declare that they are returning to Argentina where they can act in the circus AND have decent health care.

Driving home, disturbed and enthused and entertained and thoughtful, I turned on the radio. 

NPR was just announcing that Mitt Romney had narrowly won the Michigan primary. Then came the victory speech:

"You know, a lot of people say that if you’re running for office, you can’t speak honestly with the American people.  Well, I did – and I will – because this is a decisive moment that requires real leadership."

. . .

"These days, when he’s not spending our money or infringing upon our rights, President Obama is busy running for re-election.  He believes he ranks among the top four presidents in history."

. . .

"President Obama believes he is unchecked by our Constitution.  He is unresponsive to the will of our people.  In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election."

. . .

"He passed Obamacare.  I’ll repeal it."

And I'll move to Argentina.

Give me the Circus Amok.
Give me the Bearded Lady.
Spare me the unbearded politician.

"a politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man." e.e. cummings

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Winter Scenes

Looking North from Woodland Hills; Thursday Morning

Looking South; Woodland Hills; Friday Afternoon

Blue; Sunday Noon; Woodland Hills

Woodland Hills; Sunday Afternoon

Manti, Utah; Mormon Temple; Friday Morning

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mitt Romney's (and my) BYU

1968, Provo
A cold night. January or February. I stand with friends outside Brigham Young University’s “Smith Family Living Center.” Students are dancing inside the plate-glass windows. A young black man approaches, looks into the building, moves on.
I know him, someone claims. He’s LDS. Must be lonely. Can’t hold the priesthood. Can’t marry in the temple. Seed of Cain. Curse of Ham.
We enter the Family Living Center, join the dancers.
His testimony of the true gospel, I think, commits him to a difficult life now; but in the eternities. . . . My mind skids to the warm, firm thighs of the tall girl from Idaho who is holding me as close as I her.

This is a scene I come back to often, especially when I'm wondering just how I became who I have become and what possibilities lie in my future. 
Eighteen years old. A Mormon missionary in waiting, just months from two years spreading the Gospel in Germany (spreading is too strong a word, there was only one odd convert). Fresh out of high school. Gathering experience at the Mormon university—social experience as well as intellectual and theological.
And, unwitting fellow student with Ann Davies Romney.
This I learned this morning as I read Jason Horowitz's Washington Post piece on Mitt Romney's two years at BYU (the two years I was in Germany). It's a good account, I think, of life at our university in those days. You can read it HERE.
As the son of school teachers, raised in Farmington, New Mexico, naive about the Civil Rights movement (only the vaguest thoughts, including a hint that it was probably Communist inspired), unable to think of a term-paper topic except for a diatribe against socialized medicine (lamented in an earlier post—click HERE), I knew little about the social world Horowitz sketches in his piece. Cougar Club? I did, once, disastrously (or, better, hilariously), attend a costume ball at the invitation of a Cougarette. 
Although he mentions it, Horowitz doesn't elaborate on the racism that infected us on the BYU campus in those days. (See my earlier post on my own racism—click HERE.) I, in Germany, Mitt Romney, in France, and thousands of other missionaries preached and defended the belief that a black skin (as well as the brown skin of Native Americans) was a curse carried by descendants of the murderous Cain (or by descendants of the unrighteous Lamanites).
Mitt's father (see the earlier post on pressure from a Mormon apostle to do otherwise—click HERE) supported the Civil Rights movement; but as a practicing Mormon there was no way around the ongoing denial of the Priesthood to black men (women are, to this day, still denied the power that the Priesthood bestows). No way around for me. No way around for Mitt.


You said that you in Germany, Mitt Romney, in France, and thousands of other missionaries preached and defended the belief that a black skin (as well as the brown skin of Native Americans) was a curse carried by descendants of the murderous Cain (or by descendants of the unrighteous Lamanites).

We had specific instructions in Peru to be polite to those who we assumed --given our North American prejudices -- had African origins but not to “encourage them”. People in all shades and hues. I rebelled against this in a small town where I was the branch president in Northern Peru. A man who missionaries had baptized and was active in the local branch leadership had two sons, and the previous missionaries who were branch presidents had refused to permit them to be ordained with the Aaronic priesthood because of what missionaries thought might have been African heritage on their mother’s side based on some grainy black and white photos that indicated the relatives had curly hair. The Spanish term they used for the curly hair was crespito. I looked at the pictures and laughed. They are crespitos como yo, since I had curly hair too.  It wasn’t long after that (it was sometime in 1968 when my experience happened) that the church began to rethink this grotesque practice, but it couldn’t do much else given the boom in baptisms in Brazil, where if you used standard north American prejudices most of the populace looked like crespitos or negritos or some other such types. But the people were being baptized in the thousands. They would have had to mandate genealogy tracing before baptism and ordination to sort it all out in Brazil, and in much of Latin America where “working like  a black man” was often said with pride of anyone of another race who was doing their least that’s my memory and I’m sticking by it.  And we were very solicitous of those we thought were Native Americans in Peru and Ecuador, actually seeking them out, doing our best to proselytize them, so that although we had that damned "white and delightsome" language from the Book of Mormon, in my brief experience in the “lamanite” world areas, they were part and parcel of who we were trying to convert.

And finally, in those days, in the Mormon temple ceremony, the devil was said to have black skin.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nudity Explains the Darkness

Paul Swenson reading at Ken Sanders Rare Books
He loved women, Bel Cluff told me as we left the memorial service for Paul Swenson.

You have a wonderful family, I told Fae Ellsworth, a radiant woman—one of Paul's numerous sisters, I presumed— who had read her funny and intimate poem "How to Be Paul Swenson"early in the service.

I'm not Paul's sister, she said. I've been his lover for the past decade.

Barbara Bernstein, also not Paul's sister, read a eulogy that began with a statement about how since Paul's death she had had a single focused repeated set of thoughts: about the plan of salvation.

No, not that plan of salvation, she said. 

The Mormon Bishop would, somewhat awkwardly but with blessed concision, after remarking he had never witnessed an event like this one, lay out that plan at the end of the service.

A line from one of Paul's poems remarks on the Bishop's remark, something like this: "I baptized her and washed away all her sins—plot line thins at this point." 

I mean Paul's plan of salvation, Bernstein continued. Every time he saw you he would do or say something to make your life better.

Eulogies abounded, as did poems by Paul and this one by his  sister May (of Beat Generation fame), read by their sister Beth Swenson Hall:

“Feel me to do right,” our father said on his deathbed.
We did not quite know—in fact, not at all—what he meant.
His last whisper was spent as through a slot in a wall.
He left us a key, but how did it fit? 

. . .
“Lie down with me, and hold me, tight. Touch me. Be
with me. Feel with me. Feel me to do right.”

At once familial and sexy, May's poem could have been written by Paul. They both loved women.

Paul, weeks before his death, wrote "Nudity Explains the Darkness" (thank you Bel for the signed copy) in which, in the context of dipping chocolates and dipping bodies in the dark in a hot tub, Paul remembers the AP reporter denied entrance to a Priesthood meeting in the Mormon Tabernacle because she was a woman wearing pants. She returned, Paul writes: "in low-cut dress, / and there, associated press of male / attention pondered golden crucifix / that burned between her breasts."

Paul even loved his phlebotomist (December 2011):

"My phlebotomist / finds my tiny vein / first prick. Even though / I'm a 'hard stick,' / as she calls it (as if I didn't know). . . . Not her looks that haunt me, / but that she wants / my fluid, and reads my EKG."

Doesn't surprise me at all that they want his fluid and to read his heart.

Nor does it surprise me that Paul's absence is powerful as the day wears on.

It does surprise me how little grief was in the air at the service. Raw grief, I mean. There were plenty of deep feelings, well expressed.

But where were the sobs, the tears, the distraught faces? Did we celebrate too well?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Fortunetelling in Wickenburg

14 August 1972, Wickenburg, Arizona
While we drill an exploratory well a few miles north of town, I’ve taken a room in a ramshackle motel crammed into the elbow of a highway-railroad intersection. My next-door neighbor is a wizened ex-contortionist who looked deeply into my eyes the first time I said hello and said she would read my palm if I would come into her room. I claimed to have a vague palm. Her name is Maria, and in the relative cool of the evenings she maneuvers a hose to sprinkle a tiny plot of grass and flowers. She wears a sleeveless blouse, a pair of loose shorts, and sneakers with no socks. She ties white rags around her deeply tanned left calf and her equally brown left bicep, white semaphores that accentuate the contrast between the almost theoretical lines of her emaciated limbs and their pronounced joints. When I stared at her bulbous elbows (galls, burls), she responded with a practiced explanation of how her mother tied her in knots when she was a baby so she could be an acrobat. She had never regretted it, for it had led to her eventual fame and the chance to mingle with the truly great people of this century. She is resigned to living out her days in Wickenburg, where the desert heat eases her arthritic joints.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


REPORTING FROM MADRID -- A fugitive implicated in the 2003 assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic has been arrested along with two other men in Spain, police said Friday.

The three men were members of a Serbian paramilitary group known as Arkan's Tigers, Spanish police said in a statement. They were apprehended a day earlier at a restaurant in the eastern city of Valencia.

One of the men, Vladimir Milisavljevic, had been sentenced in absentia by a Serbian court to 75 years in prison for involvement in Djindjic's killing, as well as for other crimes. 
Djindjic was shot March 12, 2003, by a sniper while on his way into a government building in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Today's headline from the LA Times takes me back to the afternoon I listened to Djindjic speak to a crowd in the rain on a Belgrade square:

There is supposed to be a demonstration tonight, Žarko reports. Here in the square. Against school reform and for freedom of the media. Djindjić is going to speak.
Who is Djindjić? I ask.
He was elected mayor of Belgrade, Žarko explains. You remember the elections Milošević tried to steal? Djindjić had been a student of the philosopher Jürgen Habermas in Frankfurt. He’s an intelligent man. But he never figured out how to deal with reality. So Milošević, who isn’t all that bright academically but who has his fingers on the pulse of things, could step in after the fact, divide the opposition, and take over again.
Rain falls across the afternoon and onto the nighttime crowd that has gathered in the square, a thousand people perhaps, standing under umbrellas and yellow street lamps.
Students hand out color posters that feature a microphone lit brightly against a threatening black cloud, gripped by a hand with its middle finger extended. At the top are printed a question and a command:

                                                              MISLITE O TOME.

I understand the photo perfectly, but to translate the words I bend over my rečnik/dictionary: How much/how long the radio stopping place audible? Does it mean: How long will the radio station be audible? And then: Think about it.
            Not likely.
At the bottom are the words: Radio Index. And then a brave and/or foolhardy “claimer”: Fotografija, Art Concept and Design: KAMENKO PAJIĆ.
Twenty people, most of them men, stand on a stage built up against an equestrian statue between the museum and the theater, lit by inconsistent spotlights. Students wave the opposition party’s green and yellow flags and one red, blue, and white Serbian flag.
The steady rain soaks a huge sound system.
Speakers, one after the other, take the microphone and work the crowd. The words are incomprehensible to me, but I understand the rhetorical devices: the repetitions, the pauses, the crescendos, the climaxes.
The crowd is dripping wet. Hundreds of umbrellas block the view.
Žarko translates as much as he can. Every speaker, it seems, is denouncing as devils Milošević and Šešelj, who himself once called Milošević a devil.
Shrill whistles from the crowd.
Milošević is a fox, one speaker shouts, a fox scheming with Richard Holbrooke to sell out Kosovo.
Isn’t this the liberal opposition? I ask Žarko.
He nods.
Couples are embracing throughout the crowd.
Have you noticed that there is an erotic buzz in any demonstration? Žarko asks.
A speaker compares Milošević with Hitler.
On the periphery, young men tell loud jokes. People buy cigarettes and magazines at a kiosk. Ambulances stand by. A Red Cross worker in reflective clothing walks through the crowd with a radio.
Finally Djindjić takes the microphone. He led the street demonstrations just a year ago, hundreds of thousands of citizens marching and blowing whistles and demanding that the results of the democratic elections be honored. They achieved their goal. Djindjić and friends took office. But here they are again, out of power, outside in the rain, speaking to a scant thousand demonstrators, participants in a revolution that is running out of steam.
Still, Djindjić is a consumate orator. We’ll go to the people, he says. We don’t need the media. We’ll simply walk with the people. . . . We will not stop until the Milošević government is toppled. . . . We will not allow him to cripple the education system. . . . And we will never allow him to give away the birthplace of Serbia. Kosovo is sacred ground!
This is nuts, Žarko says.
What is nuts? I ask.
One way to explain Milošević’s drastic educational reform, he says, is as an attempt to maintain Serbian control of Kosovo by keeping the Albanians there out of the universities. So when Djindjić demands that Milošević keep Kosovo Serbian, he works against his own demand for academic freedom.
We’ll continue the demonstration tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock, Djindjić says. See you there.
And that’s it. The demonstration is adjourned.
After a minute the sound system blares some sort of heroic, overwrought film music. I think of Woody Allen’s line: “Listening to Wagner makes me want to invade Poland.” How do you move the masses without playing to the mass instincts that are part of the problem?
Before the lights dim, Djindjić gives an interview to a man in a red rain jacket holding a tape recorder and then another to a TV journalist (so who doesn’t need the media?), and it’s over.
We walk back toward my hotel. Around the corner stand eight vans full of policemen. One of them shouts insults at us as we pass. I don’t need a translator.
Radio Index posters adorn every wall, every column, every door. Someone has been busy. And brave.
In the hotel, a couple of men shake the rain out of their hair and off their coats and explain to the desk clerks: We went out to overthrow the government, and it rained. They laugh uproariously.
Žarko says good night and walks on to his mother’s place.
I sit in my room and remember Djindjić’s broad, handsome smile in the spotlight. His practiced wave. His rhythmic sentences. His forceful repetitions.
I think of the sentences I translated in Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, of a very different rhetoric – Handke’s dialectical stammering, his pragmatic detours, his incessant questions.
How does a country move from “crowds and power” to a self-conscious and skeptical democracy? Education? Books that teach another kind of thinking? But then, in a crisis, as people look for answers, for comfort, right-wing rhetoric and left-wing clichés blossom. The leader promises purity, points to unambiguous solutions, incites to absolutes, and starts wars.
I’ve read the theory. Tonight I saw theory in action.
Don’t get me wrong. I admire Djindjić. Leaders aren’t perfect. But I can wish for a different kind of people. And I’m not thinking of Yugoslavs.


Painting the Japanese-American "relocation camps," artists inevitably featured the barbed wire enclosure.

Chiura Obata's juxtaposition of the wire and the written regulations highlights the fact that the barbed wire is stretched only to punctuate the written racist laws that removed these Americans from the West Coast to interior deserts.

Chiura Obata, from Topaz Moon

Estelle Ishigo, from Lone Heart Mountain

Estelle Ishigo's loosely strung barbed wire with wide gaps between the strands also suggests that the incarceration was only symbolically enforced by barbed wire.

Brian Evenson's story "Contagion" similarly relates barbed wire to regulation. As a tool in the real world, barbed wire controls, separates, and imposes order. In response to an incomprehensible and frightening contagion, a town’s panicked populace transforms the wire’s function until the fact of the wire becomes the truth of the new religion—“You shall know the fence and the fence shall make you free.”