Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interrupted in Gladness by Horror

It is Christmas season and suddenly late on Friday, when I had just arrived in my car in Minneapolis from Duluth, comes the news about the twenty grade-school children in Connecticut killed by a deranged person with a gun from a trio of his mother's guns after he shot her to death at home. She is said to be a substitute teacher at the school where he burst in to kill everyone he could. This story is not making sense and all across the country we will wait for corrections in the story line and any further explanations of how such a travesty could happen to little children and the staunch, life-affirming adults they were entrusted to. But why would a mother--a teacher herself?--with a son who showed what must have been obvious symptoms of maladjustment to society keep guns around, probably with his knowledge?

The Saturday and Sunday are full with a holiday art fair in south Minneapolis, a show I've begun to consider my most promising of the year, and it is like all art fairs a great festival of appreciation for specialized skills and the persistence in making works that glorify God and the world that's home to us, animal characters and the quirks of people. Soup is served by Sisters' Camelot, which brings free organic food by bus to Minneapolis neighborhoods. Art gets sold and dedicated individual labors are rewarded in word and deed. Old friends and new friends enjoy one another and everyone feels like buddies, just as at the most vivacious of parties.

In the background, surely, of many of our minds was the thought that anyone who knew we were gathered there could stride in with an assault rifle or other assortment of pet guns and riddle us and our handiwork with bullets in the name of some belief or none at all. Everything could end for us all at once in a din, rubble and bloodbath. Invariably, it would seem, but maybe not, there would be a link to some artisan or shopper with a furiously disgruntled loved one or ex. There was nothing to prevent such a thing, nothing at all; we just trusted in the overwhelming likelihood that it would not happen.

We held that secret thought fleetingly, all or most of us, till the event was over and we could turn back to the news stories, learning more and getting past the earlier mistaken details. The murdered mother was not a school employee at all but a businesswoman, a divorced mother of two sons; she had been prospering on an alimony settlement and was known for her generosity with money, her enjoyment of gunmanship at shooting ranges and her privacy about the younger son, the murderer, who appears to have instilled deep fears in his mom. Whatever he inflicted on her by his behaviors appears to have felt too scandalous for her to reveal to friends.

Then on Monday morning I am making that hurried, 150-mile drive up the freeway through the crisp, thawed and re-frozen snows back to Duluth, passing the billboards sometimes worth a chuckle, like the casino ad that says "fa la la la lots of loot!" in a way that's holiday-naughty. Always there is more acreage up for sale and subdivision, no end to the spread of people into wild countryside. Why do we do away with the beautiful open spaces that harbor us when we agonize with the pains we inflict on one another, and that expand our joy in creation? It's because we observe few or no limits to earth's livable space and resources, a maladaptive trait we mostly don't admit to.

It is clear that we all hold in ourselves the germs of our own destruction, at many levels and stages, just as the vast humanity around us hides in itself individuals who are a menace, full of the potential to victimize anyone of their choosing. It's also true that history, and literature, bear many examples of odd persons mis-categorized and persecuted as a public menace when they were not. There is stigma just as there are telltale patterns that may never be well-enough understood for what they reveal in a climax of real-life drama.

A Facebook friend posted a Huffington Post piece newly published under the title of 'I am Adam Lanza's Mother'; it gave me a clue into the powerless desperation of a woman trying to rear a son whose personality profile seems a near fit with the murderer in Connecticut, a boy who alternates between terrifying tirades in which he threatens her life and his own, and apologetic engagement with her in their household. She is at her wits' end, concluding very little in the writing other than the need for much more  dialogue about mental illness.

On this theme of parents who are at a tragic loss for how to deal with children given to monstrous acts, I was reminded of the story long ago in Life magazine, about an eldest son named Richie Diener. For reasons not understood he withdrew from shy teen-aged insecurity into addiction to Seconal and other drugs, which he sold, going on to endanger both his father and mother so regularly that his father, a no-nonsense political conservative, shot him dead on the stairs of the family basement while the boy, aged seventeen, brandished a kitchen knife. George Diener was charged with murder but the jury refused to indict him.

Less was known in that family's time about intervention in families where the kids are caught up in chemical abuse; that story dates to 1972. But now, just as then and likely for all time, there seem to have been cases where parents are agonizingly close to giving up on a happy outcome from the young life of their offspring. Typical parents may never give up all hope, but withdraw in their sorrow from discussion of the impasse as kind of disgrace. We will go on striving for family failings to be brought more into the community, and that already happens whenever the parties will it and health care agencies open the channels.

As regards familial discord, it may forever be true that some children in effect are born to the wrong parents, or there is a mismatch in parent-child personalities that leads to vicious outcomes. There are well-intentioned homes that would function much better on the mixing in of both humor or storytelling; imaginative approaches to issues might long ago have melted them down to mere topics of vital discourse.

As we long to believe that no problem is intractable, that somewhere and in some time a solution exists for any interpersonal struggle once it is talked of and seen and compared with similar examples, even the personality that is its own worst enemy and a danger to society, exhilarating accounts come to mind. A teenager in Toronto breaks through the mystery that is autism by telling family and the world what autism is like via typing on the computer. She should only get better at doing so, and so might other autistic youth if given a start. More commonly, art therapy is established as a mode of dealing with a range of psychiatric disorders. And so, maybe, speaking as a member of the arts community in Minnesota, I offer the suggestion that new arts-derived disciplines for segregating and treating seriously dysfunctional people deserve some practice.

Was Margaret Atwood, author of Year of the Flood and Oryx and Crake terribly off-base when she conjured up a sport called Pain-Ball for confining the most dangerous assassins in a walled-in forest where they were free to hunt and slaughter each other? Do we not agree that a few people find no greater satisfaction than to kill? What if the very worst were allowed to eliminate each other? What about boys like Adam Lanza, so far innocent of any crimes, who fit a profile of derangement and threaten death to their own parents and strangers and who will not, by many educated guesses, mature past that state of mind? Could they be committed for their safety and for a study of outcomes, kept locked in a rooftop garden, let's say, able to blend with the other living creatures there, live in trees, busy themselves with whatever is given to them, even something productive for themselves and the rest of us, just so long as they're isolated as they appear to want to be? And maybe some would be ready, by some yet-unknown measure, to graduate beyond. Likely in future there will be discreet forms of brain modification...

Experimentation with untried therapies takes courage and resourcefulness. Dealing with violent people most certainly takes bravery, which I, for example, have wished I had much more of. I worked for several months in 2010 in a state-run crisis home where some, though not most, of the clients were hitters and throwers. Coloring with crayons and working jigsaw puzzles came easy as a way of socializing with these men; confronting them in their behaviors while alone with them and saying no, you can't have that or get away with that did not. I am bad at methods of confrontation but might have learned to be better. I wished then that I were more competent in the therapeutic intervention we had been given in training; I would have liked to practice it at length with bigger people than I am so I could know my own abilities for blocking hits and taking down aggressors. Physical processes have always been something I learned slower than normal folks around me and more practice would have been in order. But, at large, if we knew how to carry the disciplines of various art forms further into the realm of therapy for the maladjusted, therapists might be visual artists and musicians and dancers and writers, also supremely versed in person-to-person combat and defense. In certain cases we would wrestle horrific problems right out of each other and down the street, out of sight, mostly out of mind...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Dealing with Winter-melt

Snow melt along Lake Superior's northwestern shore must have been thickening today's low clouds that never gave way to sun, but heavy overcast is okay--it instills, I think, a special intimacy with everything drowsing under the cloud cover. Temps. were 37 degrees F outside of Two Harbors and 39 in town along the backdrop of Lighthouse Point. No ducks or other fowl than gulls appeared on the lake. Conditions made for the most marginal weather for outdoor watercolor, but I had come scouting a dark ledge of local basalt in the finishing process of a watercolor commissioned by my friend and co-worker Scott W., and crouching rather than sitting on the snow lest I get soggy jeans I daubed in the colors of the cliff and watched the paint not dry. My parka was open, but the chilled outer edges of my hands knew the day was not much warmer than freezing, so I could say: it IS winter, and Decembers decades ago DID include some days of thaw, and so I can better accept this winter day. I took the painting to the car to dry while the daylight dimmed and the 101st St. Olaf Christmas Festival came in on the stereo. The car is an old, first-generation Toyota Prius which, once run a short distance and warmed up, will serve as an art studio, containing sun warmth or engine heat inside without needing to idle by internal combustion, only electric power; this consoles me as a gift I've been given that I've been able to keep. At least some of us are fortunate enough to have the advantages of a hybrid car.

The St. Olaf Choir buoyed me further with the sound of the old and the new, bringing back the vistas of my central Indiana beginnings and bonding them with visions of the Upper Midwest and the boreal region, which are home now and the home of my art. The Christmas compositions said it is possible to bring old masterpieces into a new time, and the darkening day, with heat helpful to my robustness in the car despite the melting outside, said it is possible to accept some taming of winter, and adapt with a plant and animal community that is having to adapt to a more generic temperature regime that may, who knows, ultimately become common to all of central North America.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Winter Season Liquidated?

As it rains here in Duluth, MN on this 6th of November, the American election day, I wonder again if we're going to see a frozen winter this year or if it will again be bare ground, frost and mush. As Bill McKibben of said in a recent taped interview, those of us who remember the weather and the seasons for what they lately used to be are the true conservatives, not the people who are growth-at-any-cost in their views and refuse to believe that we are on track, in all our fossil-fuel-charged collective movement, to make earth's atmosphere too hot and unstable for civilization to stand. What would a conservative want to conserve, if not civilization and Mother Earth.

I always did love winter and outdoor exertion in it, my body plentifully warmed by my own inner workings. I grew up faintly jealous of school athletes and Olympians, unafraid to push themselves and compete with others, but forgave myself that I didn't have their drive. At least, I felt, I had space and could travel it for hours by my own leg-power. A great, sweeping loss of public health, I am sure, has resulted from people growing up disbelieving that winter locomotion outdoors was any good for them.
Somehow, walking in winter is a waste of time for a whole cross-section of people, while for others it's a lift or body/mind therapy. Then, too, it has something to do with the prevalence of roads and cars and trucks-- especially those mega trucks with molded curves like muscle, probably to make up for shallow real muscle on many a sedentary driver--for driving anywhere that our legs could take us, and the noise, speed and exhaust fumes that we tolerate or even revel in, like power-farts.

In the first week of February 2012 I sat in soggy snow near the shore of an island at Camp Menogyn, at the top of Minnesota near the Canadian border, and drew and painted winter spruce twigs with my fingers bare, the sun balmy on my head and hands, moisture soaking into my snow pants, a pair of snowshoes a sort of sunken seat for me. The iron grip of classic mid-winter appeared to be tamed, so that our crossing the lake ice and snow to that island on foot with sleds was in retrospect a marvel--we should have been outspokenly watchful of falling through. It was just past high noon, the water-logged pants soon to hurry me back to the fire in the lodge, the painting of redpolls whirling from a traditional snowdrift bristling with tips of frozen-crisp spruce an outdoor accomplishment that shouldn't have been possible. Complacent at what I was making--pleased, too--I was and remain chronically troubled by what is becoming of the boreal January and February. My watercolor of redpolls, winter finches of the northland, is now done, with reference to 1970s-era photography of what a snowbank in the North Woods used to look like. The present winter just didn't have any high, frozen-stiff snowbanks to offer; the snow on location was real but sinking in the broad light of day.  Blank Note Card: a Redpoll Explosion on a Winter's Morn at

Monday, October 8, 2012

At a little fall festival in Hermantown, Minnesota this week-end we bore with early snow squalls,  so the expected families were slow to arrive and the artisans came to warm themselves repeatedly around a couple of fire bowls bright with rust and stamped-out crescent moon and star shapes. Near our display was a crabapple tree as apple-crowded as ever such a tree was seen, not too far from the nearer fire. All hours of the show more or less of a quiet huddle of cedar waxwings, especially young birds with rumpled brown plumage or the grey streaking that sets them apart from the flannel-sleek adults remained there. The apples looked a bit big for little waxwings to deal with whole but, except for a little possible pecking, I saw mostly a still gathering of birds, little or not at all noticed by the vendors or bypassing staff or visitors, the birds blended into the center of the fruit tree. I wondered if the fire's warmth reached them or if the people and movement were an attraction in a social sense for them, as something to watch. I think wild birds do a lot of people-watching. In winter the best rural birding is often nearest the houses with feeders and the general shelter offered by our walls and plantings, the birds more dispersed out beyond.

Because of the crisp weather and low customer flow I did a lot of sitting at work on fantasy birds of my own, an ivory-billed woodpecker providing another woodpecker, more of a sapsucker, with intensive oral care. The idea had come to me at a recent stint in the dentist's chair. As a person little encumbered by formal scientific training in my approach to the birds, I cherish studied interpretations of their behavior but feel free to add emotion that I've conjured up to artwork and stories of birds I have met. This is liberty-taking or anthropomorphizing, yet I think the back edges of the human crowd are well-represented and well-served by folk who project their personal feelings and daydreams onto the figures of birds. It could be agreed by some people that no baby in a billboard or TV ad, and precious few iconic tribal people's faces from the pages of magazines like National Geographic are as cute and as expressive of our souls, our singlehood or our wish-fulfillment as the figures of roosting or foraging birds. See possible examples at