Wednesday, September 11, 2013


People leave small towns for their own reasons, but the people who stay also have their own reasons, and so do new people who move in.  The mix is often uncomfortable and this was clear at yesterday’s long town council meeting.  There are also larger forces acting on small towns for political reasons, sometimes disguised as “for your own good,” and sometimes truly for our own good.  These forces usually come in the form of money with conditions attached or as laws and regulations, which become more and more the language of conflict.  Conflict exploited for political advantage.

At the meeting I remarked that all these laws and regulations are marginally better than shootouts in the street and immediately everyone’s heads jumped to the rez where recently demonstrators were arrested and jailed, including a woman in a wheelchair.  The implication was “at least we’re not them,” which isn’t much of a defense.  I came away from the meeting disturbed and hard-pressed to understand what happened in the “meta” process which is why I attend  to watch in the first place.  I mean, I’m not there to get everyone to some conclusion -- I’m just trying to follow the process of it all, which is my training.  Luckily, I have a lab rat close at hand -- myself.

Of course, I already know that when the subject is animals, people go bat-shit.  They immediately polarize around their own lives.  The task that brought it on was rewriting the town ordinance because the town’s magistrate refused to rule on a case since there was no stipulated fine.  This is a town so quiet that at 3AM one can hear the semi trucks on the highway from ten miles away.  It is a leash law town but dogs in yards can and do bark.  If I’m awake, I listen and often can recognize which dog is barking -- though I still haven’t figured out which one is howling.  I should get up and check it out some night.  And it turns out that only six dogs in town are licensed.  When I proposed that someone go door-to-door to sell licenses, maybe keeping a percentage of the money they collect as their pay, all faces went blank.  To them a law is a law and the consequences are a fine.  “Make ‘em hurt.”

Nothing is so slippery as the subject of whether a dog is barking too much.  To one person it’s a welcome alarm, to the next it’s a sleep-preventer in a time of worry.  Owners and those friendly to the owner soon become habituated to the sound and don’t hear it anymore.  This town is so small that it’s halfway between country, where one wants to be warned if there are coyotes hanging around the chicken coop, and city where the problem is more likely nefarious humans.  What most people want is for someone to make that specific dog be quiet without revealing that they are the complainant, maybe for fear of retaliation, but also because being upset by a dog barking reveals a weakness, a vulnerability someone might exploit.  Small towns watch for vulnerability.  The practical woman at the meeting who recommended that bothered people go knock on the door of the dog-owner was hailed as exemplary.  But no one wanted to have to do it.  Trouble with neighbors is also a vulnerability.

Recently the council decided that home-owners should have to pay for water and sewer service to empty houses where no one was living, which is more contentious than in other places because the more prosperous members of this community leave for the south all winter and generally turn their water off.  The two-member town staff find it onerous to go perform this duty and already attached a hefty fee for turning it on or off.  But it was admitted that if someone had a “key” to the waterline from the street, there was no way except by checking the meter to tell whether the water was on or off.  Not all houses, esp. empty houses, have meters.  

This is very close to an earlier rule that no one could use a soaker hose in their yard because then the town staff couldn’t tell whether they were illegally watering their lawn.  Drip irrigation, like the ones installed on the town’s trees, were not addressed.  Clearly, the town staff wants monitoring and control, just like the US government.  AND the State of Montana which keeps raising the requirements for monitoring our sewage lagoon, to the point where it takes one day every week to properly collect, note and send samples.  This lab rat feels as though I’m being required to present myself for inspection in front of my house every morning.  Of course, no one is monitoring the monitors.  Not enough money, they say.  And I find that it costs $10 every time I water my lawn.  Is this incoherent?  So am I.

Animals and houses are highly emotional and personal issues.  Health and money come closely after.  Not just for me, but also for the three major women who took over the conversation late in the meeting.  (The husbands slipped away.)  Going to the “meta” level, I would describe them this way:  our mayor is a retired bureaucrat from the urban corporate Pacific Northwest.  She is detail and spreadsheet oriented, adept at fine print.  This prepares her for dealing with the state, which is pretty much like that.  She worries that we will get caught between collapsing infrastructure and insupportable debt.  The former mayor is an idealist who likes to see the world in terms of nurturing, love and care -- even if that means a bit of denial.  The third person, like the former mayor, is from Valier and grew up in the family business, which is the only remaining grocery store.  For people who have no vehicle to shop elsewhere, she is more powerful than any mayor.  Her issue is beautification, except that to this business person a pretty town is a commercial advantage, a sign of prosperity.

All three women want Valier to be better than it is.  This lab rat moved here to enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere.  All three want control.  The lab rat would rather read and write while someone else runs the world.  The three women are much more like each other than like the lab rat.  But they could not reach any consensus and finally sat eye-locking until the former mayor moved to end the long meeting because her family needed her at home.

The actual issue made little or no sense to me.  Partly it was the issue of forbidding people to remove their water and sewer lines in order to avoid paying the basic cost, because our infrastructure loans are based on the likelihood of repayment according to a formula that includes the number of services -- and anyway, a town is a co-op based on location and can’t just be resigned from by throwing in one’s shares.  

One claim was that the alley was never driven in.  
The single wire was not flagged as is customary. It was at throat-height on an ATV driver.

Another claim was that the little greenhouse had been placed with permission from a male mayor two decades or so ago.

Partly it was a need to appear blameless.  Partly it was property defense.  The town originally developed free-hand, without much worry about surveying.  This little greenhouse is right in the middle of a mapped alley so the rare traverser had to pass it by driving over onto "city property," viz the tennis courts.  Our town workman with a mania for trees has now planted a row of them down the side of the surveyed alley and to protect them, strung wire. Since the single wire was considered a decapitating hazard for people on All Terrain Vehicles, who take that name too seriously, the mayor personally cut it with her own wire cutters.  

Northwestern Energy threw gas on the fire by declaring that the town must clear all alleys so that they have access.  They were evidently thinking about people who parked their RV's and so on in the alley for the sake of convenience.  They seem not to realize that some people's houses technically are sticking into the alley.  Everyone was startled, but that's NOT the meta-issue.  We were talking in code all evening, which is why it was impossible to resolve: the real issues were not addressed.  They are personal, local and human.

Lately I feel the pinch of change.  For instance, I used to listen to YPR from Billings which is often not on the air, usually because of relay damage, sometimes overrun by an evangelical station in Canada.  Then I stream it through my computer, but the programming is skewing younger all the time.  They don’t even run the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday anymore!!  Good grief.  All four of we women (about the same age) are increasingly living in uncomfortably changing worlds.  Short of money, increasingly with ailing family, and just plain aging.  Is that a meta-level problem or a major philosophical problem?  Maybe it's religious.  I mean, is there a way out of this?  Aside from the end?  Sometimes dogs bark for their own reasons, and sometimes there’s a real emergency that must be addressed.  Actually, I myself feel like howling.  I don't think I'm alone.

1 comment:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

I'm listening for comments as I go around town. Some are expressing hopelessness. NOT helpful. Some are just now realizing what burdens others are carrying -- we'll see where that goes.

IMHO there is too much respect for "laws" up against people who have no intention of even finding out what the laws are. No reflection or discussion of what any particular law could be. No sense that laws can be negotiated.

Most amazing is the dossiers of offenses and slights and sins on the part of each other. Dates, times, all sorts of "facts" though unproven. Mostly he-said,she-said. It would be so easy to project this onto a country where people betray their neighbors to a higher authority in order to save themselves. And then there are people who are amused, as though the anguish of those struggling with problems is just a TV show, maybe even Downton Abbey, because many frame it as "haves" against "have nots." The ironic part is how much we ALL have here!

Prairie Mary