Saturday, April 14, 2018

Democrats have to ask themselves: When do we get mean?

Wyoming Sen./Dr. John Barrasso is a hyper-partisan ass-kisser.

We see him looming behind Mitch McConnell every time the Senate Majority Leader utters another ridiculous pronouncement. There's Barrasso, nodding and looking somber. Bobble-head Barrasso. This is the same senator that refuses to have public meetings around his state to explain his behavior. The citizenry has conducted congressional town hall meetings around Wyoming. On the stage are chairs with photos of Barrasso, Cheney, Enzi. That's as close as these public servants will come to a face-to-face with the electorate. Some of their peers in other states have been yelled at for their Triumpist policies. Egos have been bruised. Ask Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. He's used to fielding softball questions from true believers. Instead he got tough questions. Other people yelled at him for his bad behavior. He retreated back to the safety of the D.C. Beltway.

Wyomingites know how to tell shit from Shinola. You have to be older than me to know that Shinola is a shoe polish popularized by GIs in World War II. Shinola was handy and durable, great for those GI shoes and boots. GIs were adept at coining phrases, especially those that targeted inept officers, the guys sending them out to get killed. Not knowing shit from Shinola was dangerous. Funny, too, a fine play on words.

Wyomingites used to be able to tell shit from Shinola. Not any more. Congressional leaders now blow smoke up our asses and we inhale. That expression comes from cockfighting, where humans used to blow smoke up a rooster's ass to goad him into fighting harder. Cockfighting has fallen out of favor but the phrase remains and comes in handy in the political arena. Trump is a master at blowing smoke up people's asses. It incites his conservative base. Angers his opponents.

What is you can tell shit from Shinola? What if you resent having smoke blown up your ass? You have to find other candidates to vote for.

Try Gary Trauner. I canvassed neighborhoods for Gary when he ran for the U.S. House in 2006 and 2008. Trauner came within 1,000 votes of beating Barbara Cubin the last time she ran. Remember that Cubin's husband was ailing and she spent more time outside the Beltway than within. Even Republicans were irritated at her inattention to her job. Trauner hit the hustings and talked to voters. Lots and lots of voters. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Contrarians. People of many stripes voted for him. They crossed over the line between D and R and voted D.

Those were the days. Now we have an impenetrable wall between D and R. Just look at the 2016 election. Three of our best public servants were defeated by a wave of voters who came to vote for Trump the Savior and pushed all of the R buttons. I speak of Floyd Esquibel, Ken Esquibel, and Mary Throne. The Red Wave elected the bad ones and carried off the good ones. And we Democrats didn't work hard enough to get out the vote. Shame on us all.

Gary Trauner runs in 2018 to unseat Sen./Dr. Barrasso. Trauner drew about 50 people to his "listening session" in Cheyenne. Attendees asked great questions, the candidate had convincing answers.  He said he was going to talk to all people. His philosophy seemed to mirror the Dems' 2016 plan of "when they go low, we go high." One questioner challenged this philosophy, wondering if there isn't a time to "get mean." Republicans, notably out-of-state PACs, serve as unregulated attack dogs for Republican candidates and those candidates can disavow any connection with them. Meanwhile, voters minds are being swayed by right-wing paranoia. You know, the stuff you hear on Fox and talk radio. In 2016, these are the people who showed up at the polls in droves. Dems eagerly anticipated election night victory parties. As a volunteer offering rides to the polls, I picked up and delivered exactly one voter to a polling place. His vote, whatever it was, was overwhelmed by the Red Tide.

Will there be a blue wave in 2018 that lifts all boats? Gary Trauner will be in one of those boats. I will help him row, or paddle, or steer, or sail, or whatever else you do in a boat in this godforsaken windswept desert. But I am just one person.

My advice to you: help us roll with the tide. This should be the ideal year for The Dem Blue Wave. But you have to show up. Take a look at Trauner's web site. He says that this campaign is "all about leadership and integrity." Let's prove him right.

If you'd like to see my blog posts from Trauner's 2006 and 2008 campaigns, go to the search box on my right sidebar and type in Gary Trauner. There are a bunch of them, and not all are masterpieces. I do like this one. But they do give you some perspective on the temper of the times in 2006-2008. Remember 2008? We elected the country's first African-American president. It was only ten years ago but now it seems as if it happened in an alternate reality.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

This isn’t the first time that National Guard units have been sent to the border

1916 cartoon by Clifford K. Berryman, via National Archive Berryman collection. Not sure if the Uncle Sam of 2018 can jump the massive wall that soon will be built at the border. 

Guys in white pajamas shot at my grandfather. That’s the way he told it, anyway. Or maybe it’s just the way I remember his stories. For a few months in 1916-17, Grandpa and his troop of Iowa National Guardsmen faced Pancho Villa’s irregulars across the Rio Grande. He told us that the white-clad Mexican fighters couldn’t shoot straight but Iowans in their spiffy regulation uniforms weren’t much better. They didn’t know it yet, but they were practicing for the big show in France. The U.S. entered the war about a month after Grandpa and his unit returned to Iowa.

Trump isn’t the first commander-in-chief to send National Guard units to the U.S./Mexican border. It’s different this time because Trump is in a snit about not getting enough funding from Congress for his stupid border wall. During the campaign, Trump promised rabid rally crowds that he would build a wall and by gum, he will get his wall, or else your husband or cousin or daughter from the Iowa National Guard will spend the next year trying to snag the caravans of Mexicans that Trump imagines are invading the U.S.

Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa did invade the U.S. in 1916. His seasoned troops invaded Columbus, New Mexico, and killed 18. Villa lost almost 100 men due to the shiny new machine guns employed by U.S. troops. Villa fled back across the border, leaving Americans in a panic. Pershing’s troops, aided by the first airplanes used by the U.S. in combat, pursued Villa through northern Mexico. They killed a few of his lieutenants but never snagged Villa.

Trooper Raymond Arthur Shay, Iowa National Guard, Iowa City. He and his farm-boy cohorts knew how to ride and care for their horses. They spent most of that southwestern winter dismounted, swatting flies, and taking pot shots at insurgents. Prior to this border expedition, the farthest Grandpa had been from home was basic training at Camp Dodge outside Des Moines. He was a farm boy, oldest of nine kids. Now here he was, hunkered down on the banks of The Big Muddy and the big fool told him to push on – or at least to keep firing at the tiny men in pajamas he could barely see. Their horses weren’t much good either, as this guerilla war was unsuited to cavalry charges. Horses did come in handy for the U.S. Army patrols sent into enemy territory to find Villa. As far as I know, Grandpa never made it across the border.

Four years before, General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing, commander of this Mexican Punitive Expedition had wrapped up another war like this. In 1911-13, he waged what most considered a successful campaign against the Muslim Moros in the Philippines. In Pershing’s view, the Moros were pajama-clad insurgents worth fighting. But not these poor, undisciplined Mexicans. Pershing grew increasingly frustrated. His hands were tied by Congress. Politicians -- always coming to the border on their junkets. Reporters in tow asking stupid questions. There was no winning under these circumstances. This refrain would be echoed decades later by other U.S. generals in other wars. You know, Vietnam.

At the end of January 1917, Pershing abandoned the border foray. The following winter, Grandpa, now a newly minted second lieutenant, found himself in France eyeballing German trenches across a bombed-out moonscape. World War I trench warfare, with its machine guns and barbed wire, rendered obsolete any “Charge of the Light Brigade” operations. Still, the Iowans had shipped over with their horses as cavalry looked fine on parade days. One spring morning, a resurgent General Pershing staged an inspection and picked the unit’s best mount to ride. It belonged to Lieutenant Shay. That was the high point of the war for him, his favorite story, and ours.

Other stories weren’t quite as romantic. Dismounted, in the trenches, poison gas washing over doughboys as they struggled to don their gas masks. Never enough time. Enough of the gas seeped into Grandpa’s lungs to cause some harm, but not enough to get him sent home before the Armistice.

Grandpa’s gas mask and helmet rest in a box in my basement. Photos, too, of him and his troopers in France. Photos of Grandma – his wife -- and her nursing school graduating class. I think about them and their war when I drive down Cheyenne’s Pershing Avenue, as I do almost every day. Cheyenne, a military town, became the adopted home for the globetrotting General Pershing. He married Helen Frances Warren, the daughter of Wyoming’s first U.S. Senator, and served at Fort D.A. Russell, now F.E. Warren AFB. Their home is now a living museum, preserved for future generations. The base itself is a national historic site, home to war trophies from the Philippines and the old airfield where World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker cracked up his biplane and almost died. It also was the training site for Spaatz’s Flying Circus and the U.S. Army’s airmail service -- Charles Lindbergh was one of its first pilots.

The Pershing family experienced its share of tragedy. If you take a stroll through Cheyenne’s historic Lakeview Cemetery, you will come across a large grave marker for Frances E. Warren and her three daughters, ages 3, 7 and 8. In 1914, Gen. Pershing left his wife and four children at the Presidio in San Francisco to take over command of a brigade at Fort Bliss, Texas. Things were heating up at the border and the general was there to plan for the inevitable. In August of 1915, Pershing received a telegram that his wife and daughters died of smoke inhalation at a Presidio fire. Only his 6-year-old son survived.

Pershing Avenue starts at F.E. Warren AFB and runs straight through town past the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center where the aging Lieutenant Raymond Shay spent some of his last days. The road ends on the east side of town. If you know where to look, you can see Minuteman III missile sites out on the prairie.
     
Combat casualties were minimal in my grandfather’s World War I unit. They were surpassed by deaths from infection and disease, especially from the Spanish flu. Grandpa’s lungs deteriorated from gas attacks. After he returned to the States, he recuperated for months in an Iowa Army hospital. When he took a turn for the worse, the Army transferred him to Army Hospital Number 21 – soon to be renamed Fitzsimons Army Medical Hospital after a hero of the Great War. The dry Denver climate, famous for its healing properties, may have helped his recovery. He really took a turn for the better when he met my grandmother, an Army nurse. He and Florence Green married in 1921, stayed in Denver, raised a family, and lived a good long time.

Now Grandpa and Grandma share a plot at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver.

Wonder what they would make of our boy Trump.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Writing and gardening -- two peas in a pod

One of my former state government colleagues advised me about retirement. He retired years before I did and was confronted with many volunteer offers. His wife, in a stroke of genius, advised him to take out his appointment calendar and write "No" on each page. She wanted him free to travel and spend time together.

I was tickled to see this same person on the list of volunteers for the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. It's a long list -- 88 in all, according to volunteer coordinator Amy Gorbey.  She's the energetic person who keeps tabs on us all. I had taken the couples' advice and held off volunteering for my first two years. For the most part, anyway. I did some volunteering for the Democrats leading up to the 2016 election. We all know how that turned out. I was asked to become part of several boards but declined. I wanted time to write and I that's what I got.

Over time, I feel a need to reconnect with humans. I figured I could have my morning writing time, in solitude, and then spend afternoons greeting visitors and otherwise helping out at the new Cheyenne Botanic Gardens and its new Grand Conservatory.

Thus far at the CBG, I've picked up sticks on the grounds, detritus from spring wind and snow storms. I snacked with some of my fellow volunteers. On Saturday, I staffed the front desk. I greeted many people, most from Cheyenne but others from Colorado and elsewhere. Most walked through the conservatory in less than a half hour and exited. Some lingered. One couple brought in their lunch and ate on the second floor that overlooks the many growing things on the main floor. One young woman carried a book as she disappeared into the gardens. One gentleman had a phone photo of a plant on the third floor and asked me what it was. I sent him and his question over to the horticulturalist. One attendee who exited a baby shower with an armful of gifts, said she was from Torrington and loved the CBG, wished her town has something similar. Not likely, considering the work that went into planning the conservatory and getting the voters to approve a sixth penny amendment to fund it. Cheyenne is the only city of its size to have such an amenity. Some might call it a lifestyle enhancement, as it gets bragged about by the Visit Cheyenne and C of C folks. Voters have approved initiatives for the CBG, a new airport facility, the public library. But they keep rejecting a recreation center. There are as many reasons for these issues as there are voters. Maybe I will explore them in a future column.

The CBG has been treasured by residents since it began its life 40 years ago as a simple greenhouse on U.S. Hwy. 30. Almost every growing thing you see in the city was planted by someone. The only naturally occurring plants belonged to the short-grass prairie. Native Americans and settlers found trees along waterways. In fact, you could I.D. a water source when parched travelers sighted trees off on the horizon. Snow-capped mountains lured people to the West but it was snow melt that brought prosperity. How it was harnessed is one of the West's great stories. Sad ones, too.

I like growing things. Not enough to be a farmer but enough to be a fair-weather gardener. That activity has something in common with writing. You prepare the soil, plant seeds, fertilize and water, and eventually harvest. If you don't like each of these steps, then why bother? I can buy tomatoes at the grocery store and farmer's markets. I can check out books at the library and even buy a few at my local neighborhood bookstore. Why grow my own?

I like the act of writing. It's fun, it's frustrating. After I spent a lifetime writing millions of words, i have finally arrived at a time when I'm pretty good at it. This is the harsh truth of any creative endeavor. There is no quick way to become good at something. This is a definite drawback when it comes to selecting college majors and making a living. But if it gives you meaning, you can't avoid the inevitable. Horticulture majors have a leg up on English majors, unless those well-read folks decide to parlay their knowledge of Emily Dickinson and magical realism into a law school admission.

You can grow a book. You can grow a garden. They both take time and attention, both in short supply in 2018.

Get more info on the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens at https://www.botanic.org/. Tips on writing? So many resources. The act of writing is a prerequisite for the other stuff.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Another generation betrayed by those who should know better

This Saturday, thousands of young people will stage the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally in Washington, D.C. Expecting huge crowds, officials have changed the opening day of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival to Sunday, March 25. This also marks the beginning of tourist season for D.C. Spring is gorgeous. The cherry blossoms that surround the tidal basin are spectacular. But this year, the weekend's focus will be on ways that we can stop the slaughter of our children in their schools.

I can only guess at the pain that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students from Parkland, Fla., feel as they watch their elders dither over gun control. These are the results you get from us – hypocrisy and betrayal. The students’ adversaries are monumental. Its structure will have to be dismantled brick by brick.

I imagine what would have happened if a gunman had entered my Florida school 50 years ago and murdered 17 of my classmates and teachers.

The year, 1968. The school, Father Lopez Catholic High School in Daytona Beach. We 17-year-old juniors have Valentine’s Day on our minds. I hoped I had bought just the right thing for my girlfriend. My girlfriend might have been contemplating the very same thing. Basketball season was winding down and it looked like my Green Wave team was going to win the conference. We had all given up something for Lent. Chocolate. French fries. Cussing. Fear of eternal damnation kept us chaste so there was no reason to give up sex, although we joked about it. Spring break was on the horizon, as was summer, and we were thinking about summer jobs and days on the beach.

We had an open campus. Anyone could walk in and did. Moms delivered forgotten lunches and homework. Visitors dropped by at any time. We would have been sitting ducks for a killer.

It never happened at my school and never has. If 17 of my classmates had been killed, I would have known them all – we had fewer than 400 students in four grades. One of the dead or wounded could have been me. I like to think that I would have been a hero no matter what. I have nothing to base that on because I had never faced a shot fired in anger – and I still haven’t. We would all be devastated. We would be looking for solace and answers.

What would adults have told us? Don’t worry. This is an aberration. The gunman was crazy. It will never happen again.

And we would have believed them.

That was our first mistake. It wouldn’t be our last.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., would be gunned down in Memphis. Our school’s mostly-black neighborhood would not be safe. Riots would erupt on Second Avenue which, during those segregated times, was where the black population lived.  

On June 6, Robert Kennedy would be murdered by an assassin. I idolized the Kennedys. RFK and JFK were imperfect human beings. But I was a teen looking for some heroes.  

Florida native Charles Whitman murdered 16 people, most of them from a perch at the University of Texas tower, in July 1966. Not the first mass murder but the fact that it was a former Marine sniper made news. And he was a very angry white man.

On Valentine’s Day 1968, the Tet Offensive was just winding down in Vietnam. Surely this meant the end of a failed experiment, one that was claiming the lives of my peers and many Vietnamese. The war dragged on for another seven years. Our elders, “the best and the brightest,” insisted it was the right thing to do.

None of the adults gave us the real facts about sex. Parents and nuns and priests decided that fear was enough of a deterrent. They were mostly correct, although at least one of our female classmates missed part of the senior year with an unplanned pregnancy. You would not be surprised that pregnant teens found the same censure at public schools. It just wasn’t done. The boys were never blamed.

We knew betrayal, we didn’t yet have a name for it. Members of our generation possessed a simmering rage. That was a problem, because the Summer of Love and the Age of Aquarius had dawned. Peace, love, and understanding. If that was true, how come people were filled with anger? Blacks vs. Whites. Cops vs. pot smokers. Rednecks vs. hippies. Viet Cong vs. the U.S.A. Irish Catholics vs. Protestants. Jews vs. Arabs and almost everyone else.

Flash forward to the present. Seventeen killed and a dozen wounded at a Florida high school. The only ones making sense are 16- and 17-year-old classmates of the dead at Douglas High School. Adults in positions of power are dangerous fools. They spout nonsense that get their children killed.

Betrayed. It’s déjà vu all over again.

It may have its roots in the betrayal that ignited our generation. That was never resolved, or forgotten, just buried as the years passed. We weren’t the first. It’s possible that adults of every generation betray their children. Over time, we lose touch with our values and our kids pay the price. You can say that every generation needs to experience hardships to find out the true nature of the world. Center for Disease Control figures come up with 1.55 million deaths from firearms in the U.S. from 1968-2016. This includes the span of many generations. Wouldn’t a smart, caring community have come up with some solutions by now?

Good people do bad things. Bad people do bad things. That’s an old story. But why do we make it easier for anyone to buy an AR-15, walk into a school, and shoot down 17 people? Haven’t we learned our lessons by now? Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. The list goes on and on. If we don’t do something about it, we betray our children. If we do something about it, we betray only the NRA and our thick-headed politicians.

The choice should be clear. More betrayal, the generational rite of passage? Or do we do something new and different and constructive?

Which will it be?

Friday, March 16, 2018

"Lincoln in the Bardo" explores the gap between tragedy and comedy

George Saunders' novel "Lincoln in the Bardo" is eerie and hilarious. The novel is written by an experienced short story writer and is structured as a series of scenes set in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln visits the resting place of his 11-year-old son, Willie. Saunders has constructed an excellent novel from snatches of dialogue from dead people and swatches from books about he Civil War era in Washington, D.C. You can be excused for getting lost amidst the first few pages and wondering where the book was going. I did. But I persevered, as you sometimes have to do with a challenging literary work.

At the core of the story is a man mourning the untimely death of his son. How do you cope with such a loss? You could write a book about Lincoln's monumental depression. We have seen public figures deal with the death of their offspring. Joe Biden publicly mourned the death of his son Beau and Beau was a seasoned adult and war veteran. But mourning a young son or daughter is a special kind of hell, one that doesn't require a belief in the actual Hell of the Bible or religious iconography or even Dante. It's a hell on earth.

First, what is a bardo? From Merriam-Webster Online:
The intermediate or astral state of the soul after death and before rebirth.
As is true with all online research, you can use this dictionary definition as a launching pad into a universe of references. Bardo is a Tibetan term that's found in the Bardo Todol in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Bardo Todol is translated as "Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing."

Here's a quote from a Lion's Roar piece from April 2017:
More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states. The lesser-known bardos described in the traditional texts include the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death. 
A bardo can even be seen as the pause between one thought and another. I experience bardos on a daily basis but didn't realize it.  Once you know that, the shades that inhabit the cemetery where Willie Lincoln is buried take on a new dimension. They are not ghosts, really, or those dead people with unfinished business who haunt old hotels and abandoned mental asylums. You know, the ones who get the attention of the guys on TV's "Ghost Adventures." These souls in the bardo make up a compelling cast of characters who comment on Willie's funeral and Lincoln's nighttime foray to his son's final resting place. The two main narrators are printer Hans Vollman and Roger Blevins III, an eternally young man with some secrets.

In the reader's guide that follows the novel (Random House trade paperback), Saunders describes the core question in the novel this way: "How do we continue to love in a world in which the objects of our love are so conditional?"

Heartbreak is at the heart off "Lincoln in the Bardo." Lincoln is so heartbroken by Willie's death that he can barely go on, that he forgets he has another young son at home in a sickbed. Some of the most amazing lines in the book happen when each of the spirits admits he/she is dead and transforms into the next life. As they depart, onlookers get a glimpse into their lives before death and the lives they could have led had they lived to a normal life span. I was reminded of the graveyard scenes in "Our Town," when the dead comment on the fragility -- and ignorance -- of the living. Life is a mystery and a tragedy. Heartbreak is our destiny. The ones we love leave us and we are challenged to keep going in this sphere. Lincoln lost a son, lived with an off-kilter wife, and had a war to run. We often hear of "Lincoln the Emancipator" and "Lincoln the Rail-Splitter." The mythic Lincoln. In recent years, we have heard more about the Lincoln with crippling depression. I can hear R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe wailing "Everybody Hurts" as Lincoln makes his way home from the cemetery.

One note about Saunders as short story writer: I hadn't read a Saunders story in awhile. Not sure why. I picked up a 2016 Random House paperback reissue of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline" at my local bookstore. I read the title story and beheld intimations of what would appear in "Bardo." We meet the "ghostly McKinnon family" who occupied the CivilWarLand site back during the Civil War. They met a bad end at the hands of Mr. McKinnon, who was never the same after the Battle of Antietam. The daughter, Maribeth, is "a homely sincere girl who glides around moaning and pining and reading bad poetry chapbooks. Whenever we keep the Park open late for high-school parties, she's in her glory." Maribeth is more real than the narrator's two bratty sons. Saunders makes the real absurd and the absurd real. As Joshua Ferris notes in the intro, it's the latter skill "is a much harder trick to pull off" but it moves Saunders from the pigeonhole of satirist and "into the open air of the first-rate artist."

In "Lincoln in the Bardo," Saunders skill as a writer helps us see that the human tragedy is also the human comedy. Maybe that's a bardo, too, the gap between tragedy and comedy.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What kind of horse gets depicted in public art -- and who decides?

Donal O'Toole wrote a fine piece for Studio Wyoming Review last week. It critiqued the public art on the University of Wyoming campus and found it wanting. Too many bucking broncos. I agree. Enough with the bucking broncos. Cowboys riding horses out of a rodeo chute is just one small aspect of Wyoming life (for a different look at rodeo, check out RoseMarie London's photographs). Almost every community has a rodeo. Fine. What other aspects of the rodeo can be depicted in public art? Rodeo has a history but I see few representations of that. What about the Hispanic roots of rodeo? Where are our vaquero statues? What about Native Americans on horseback? UW has one sculpture of Chief Washakie. What is that tradition? Hispanics and Native Americans have long histories with the horse.

The horse itself has a long history in Wyoming. I was amazed to learn that an ancient genus of horse, now labeled Haringtonhippus francisci, roamed Wyoming for thousands of years, until about 17,000 years ago. Then it disappeared from the fossil records. DNA extracted from bones at Wyoming's Natural Trap Cave have shown that this horse is a separate genus from Equus, the one that includes the horses depicted in UW sculptures. The line that includes the North American horse, also called the New World Stilt-legged horse, apparently diverged from Equus 4-6 million years ago, according to a 2017 article in Science Daily.  Here is an artist's rendering from phys.org:

This illustration depicts a family of stilt-legged horses (Haringtonhippus francisci) in Yukon, Canada, during the last ice age. Credit: Jorge Blanco.

As interesting as it would be to see these horses in the wild, it would still be interesting to see artistic renderings of this Ice Age creature on the UW campus. Our history as a geographic place predates the beginnings of cowboys and rodeos. Millions of years of history is explored in science courses at UW. Let's put some examples on display for all to see. There is a funky T-Rex in front of the UW Geology Building. That's so predictable, isn't it? But why not represent all of the flora and fauna that now exists as dirt and shards and fossils (and coal, oil, and gas) underneath our feet? In this era of Climate Change Deniers, wouldn't it be educational to see what sort of life forms led to the eons-long formation of coal deposits which we have burned for fuel which loaded up the atmosphere with CO2 and caused global warming which will melt the polar ice which will then cause the oceans to reclaim some of its ancient territory which includes Wyoming?

Perhaps that is too educational. Chris Drury's "Carbon Sink" at UW tried to represent this and look what happened to that. You have to believe in the values of education to actually make this work. Our current crop of Know Nothing Republicans in the legislature despise higher education because it offers more expansive views of the world than their narrow minds can cope with. These same people fear non-representational art for its ability to challenge assumptions about time and space and imagination.

A different look at a horse: Deborah Butterfield's "Billings" was part of the "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" at UW. From the UW Art Museum blog.

One of my favorite public art installation at UW was the multi-year "Sculpture: A Wyoming Invitational" that began in 2008. UW Art Museum Susan Moldenhauer and staff decided to take art outside during the museum's interior renovation. UW hosted 17 works by 16 artists of international renown. Some were on the UW campus, others scattered around Laramie. I fondly recall walking the campus on a warm summer day to view the artwork and then tooling around town to see the rest. One of my favorites was Patrick Dougherty's "Shortcut," an assemblage of Wyoming sticks and branches that, over the course of several years, was allowed to change with the elements. Students helped the artist, which gave them some real-world experience in alternative sculpture. Then the wind and the rain and the snow took over.

We all learned a valuable lesson about power in Wyoming when energy interests persuaded UW leaders to dismantle and remove "Carbon Sink" on one dark and stormy night. Public arty is OK, they seemed to say, as long as it doesn't interfere with the interests of international conglomerates that reap a bountiful harvest from Wyoming. That may be one of the reasons that public art at UW has become so predictable in the Trump era.

The artists continue to make relevant art and the combine, as Chief Broom might say in an inner dialogue, keeps churning along.

My latest art review appeared Friday in Wyofile's Studio Wyoming Review. Read "Worth a thousand words: the work of Laramie photographers."

Keep reading -- and keep making art.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Strong mind, strong body -- take your pick

Just added to my reading list: "Blue Dreams: The science and the story of the drugs that changed our minds" by Lauren Slater. I will tackle it once I finish "Lincoln in the Bardo" by George Saunders.

"Blue Dreams" is a non-fiction account of psychiatric drugs and their effects by someone who is both a patient and a psychologist.

"Lincoln in the Bardo" is a novel that explores something that seems a lot like severe depression and PTSD in Abraham Lincoln, who is mourning the death of his 11-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.

Would Lincoln have benefited from a regimen of Prozac or other SSRIs? Perhaps. Maybe he would have recovered from his dark moods more quickly with a couple hits of Molly or LSD.

We'll never know. But psychedlics figure into Slater's book. Party drug MDMA (Molly) has been tested on those with PTSD. It has shown some remarkable and lasting results. As Slater recently described it on NPR's "Fresh Air:" those who take Molly and relive their trauma are able to shift that experience into another section of the brain, possibly the prefrontal cortex, helping remove it from the "fight or flight" amygdala. They can then get a handle on a horrible memory without degenerating into bouts of anxiety or self-harm, even suicide.

Slater wonders if this experimentation may lead to another golden age of drug therapy. The previous golden age brought on by lithium and Prozac may be nearing its end. Slater testifies that medications have helped her stay sane, raise a family and write books. They also have shortened her life.

That's the trade-off. So goes the old witticism: "Sound mind. Sound body. Take your pick." After five stays in psychiatric facilities between the ages of 13 to 24, Slater's doctors discovered Prozac. In a rush of Seratonin-laced good will, she finsihed finished her education, married, had two children and embarked on a writing career.

Then came trouble, in the form of the return of depression  and the start of her use of Zyprexa, which caused her to gain weight and lose her libido.

We patients are guinea pigs. Researcher still don't know the inner workings of these drugs. And their long-term effects. If you are in the midst of a severe depression, you want immediate help. Doesn't happen. Prozac or Zoloft may alleviate the symptoms eventually. Studies have shown that two-thirds  of those with depression would recover just as well with a placebo. That's depressing enough. Add side-effects into the mix and you have to wonder what in the hell we are doing.

I have been taking antidepressants for almost 30 years. I feel better, go off them, and crash. One of my psychiatrists once lectured me: "You have to stay on these the rest of your life. You have depression."

That made an impression. Unfortunately, I don't always listen. I went off my Zoloft six years ago and the walls came crashing down. I was out of work for a month. My psychiatrist at the time, who fled Wyoming for Hawaii one winter and never came back, tried a return to Zoloft and then several other meds. We finally went back to Prozac with a nighttime dose of Remeron. Several months later, I felt better but also was back exercising on a regular basis and eating right, which helped. Also, I was in talk therapy with a therapist and regularly saw my psychiatrist. Still, that summer I was still experiencing bouts of depression interspersed with anxiety. It probably took a good six months for my moods to stabilize.

Six months later, on Jan. 2, 2013, I had a heart attack. I recovered quicker from a "widow maker" than I did from depression. Got more help, too. Add an inept mental health care system to the fact that the docs know so little about the drugs and the human mind. That makes for a killer cocktail of ignorance. At least I have both Medicare and private insurance which enables me to navigate the system without going broke.

But I am not only here to complain. I am here to critique books. "Lincoln in the Bardo" is a wild ride and I'm only on page 98. This is how an award-winning short story writer writes a novel. Truly unique. I am a short story writer working on a novel. I find encouragement in Saunders work.

I have ordered Slater's book. I, too, would like to know what happens with long-term use of these drugs. My life depends on it.