Wednesday, December 31, 2014


709 Montana Av, Valier, MT

Now and then someone questions closely how I’ve handled my old age.  Mostly I was the beneficiary of my mother, who left me the money for this house.  It was thirty thousand dollars and some of my advisors recommended that I use that as a down payment on a better house or, since I was satisfied with this modest building, to mortgage it in order to buy another equivalent one to offer as a rental.  What I see now is that probably I ought to have had sixty thousand dollars for THIS house, since it has really needed as much as the original price in terms of repair and maintenance.  It had been a rental and was restored only to the extent that it looked good enough to sell.   But I’m glad I didn’t invest in more houses.  It wasn’t the sure thing everyone thought.  Anyway, I only needed a place to write.

The bathroom is mostly what I upgraded.  It was “homemade” and paneled with dark plywood imitation paneling.  I painted everything white.  The bathtub was shallow and rusty, the electric wall heater had frozen but was still electrically “hot”, and the sink cabinet had been invented with awkward drawers.  I replaced the bathtub with a glass corner shower and the sink with a rather fancy pedestal Victorian china version.  I tried just painting the floor, but it didn’t work and I ended up with a cheap sheet of vinyl.  Never quite finished installing it, actually.  It’s supposed to be glued down but that seems so -- final!  

I should have put money into the under-the-floor plumbing.  A lead section of waterline split underground under the sidewalk and it looked like a budget breaker, but however much I was responsible from the house to the hookup at the water main, water meters for the town had just been installed (a state requirement to qualify for a loan for the town upgrade to a second water tower as well as a water conservation strategy) and so the amount of leakage could not be quantified so I could not be billed.  

Drains have been more of a problem than water supply.  It appeared that the “stink stack” that lets air in so that water can flow through the system and out might have been blocked.  But the shingles are too fragile for someone to go on the roof to check.  We finally just sawed the stack in half down below, so now we know it's clear, but if it becomes blocked, there’s a section of plastic pipe where we could clean it out below. In the end it turned out to have an elbow at the bottom end that was less than a 45º angle that filled with water like a P-trap and made an air lock.  I had thought of the pipe as an exhaust from the sewer pipes so gases could push out, but it is in fact an air DRAW that hasn’t got enough pressure to push IN through water.

The guy who put in my kitchen sink groaned when he saw I’d bought a cast-iron white double-sink -- it’s so heavy that it’s making that whole counter subside a bit.  It was a few hundred bucks and then I paid about ten dollars for the formica counter.  I should have spent the money on the kitchen drain which was put in years and years ago by a home plumber who didn’t really grasp the whole thing about gradients.  Same with the gutters.

But the worst part of the infrastructure of this house is my failure of simple housekeeping.  I’m like the person who’s on a serious diet but finds herself standing in front of the refrigerator with half a chocolate cake in her hand and frosting on her lips.   I start out to do a serious vacuuming and the next thing I know, I’m back at the keyboard.  Boxes are waiting for me to sort that have been waiting for decades. My four-drawer filing cabinets had to go to the garage because they were making the floor sink in the house.  All I want to do is sit at the keyboard.  It's sweeter than chocolate.  (When the cat doesn't puke into it.)

The infrastructure of the town has echoed the house: frail old piping, an aging population without either the money or the will to make big changes mandated by the state and nation.  Valier is essentially a one-industry economic base -- irrigated wheat as developed by Cargill -- which extends from Swift Dam in the rez mountains through the canal system, the lake, the elevators, the railroad and trucking industries, and finally world markets fed by ocean-going ships and controlled by international political agendas.  Beef, pork and poultry are sidelines.  I wonder if anyone here realizes how fragile a climate-dependent, internationally marketed, debt-and-stock-market-controlled monoculture this really is.

The legally defined town is school, grocery store, church, coffee shop, service station, library, hardware store.  The actual power and resources are in the ranches, the “service area” of the post office, the phone lines, the gas pipes, the water system, the electrical transformers.  We need a better governing structure for the two that will help unite the cultures.  Our continuum -- like so many now -- is at two ends with a small middle.  There is a lot of harsh judgmentalism, guarded families, some hidden evils and a front of conformity.  People question me because they wonder whether they should do the same thing in retirement: buy a small house in an out-of-the-way old-fashioned community.  A place with no trouble, they think.  There are a few other "outsiders" here who make it work.  They are self-sufficient, creative, busy.  They like working on their houses and participating in local doin's.

Meadville/Lombard Theological School's library

In other places the most "interesting" event has been watching the disintegration of my religious affiliation.  One seminary is now only “virtual,” the word that used to drive my thesis advisor crazy because I was feeling my way towards a body of thought about how we construct our worlds.  (He was a quietly committed but tolerant Christian.) That is, I accept the post-modern and neurologically supported view that there IS no reality -- even the seminary now has no bricks, no physical presence except books on leased shelves, a negotiable curriculum and a shifting faculty.  

The most major construct there seems to be the importance of non-white, non-male, non-American elements.  All non's.  Like what they tell us is a growing proportion of "none's" when it comes to national religious beliefs.  The other seminary has just lost two more professors due to resignations in protest to management.  The denominational headquarters have moved from the Boston hill underlain by the detritis of centuries to a renovated warehouse district that will probably go underwater in the coming decades.  The major message I get daily in my email is “send money, send money, send money.”  The ministers I so admired have now mostly died of old age.

In terms of  my economics the fallen keystone of this decade has been the crash of publishing.  My “virtual” internal world was constructed at a time I was reading 1910 novels in which the author (female) saved the farm by getting a book published.  Plucky Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery saved their families.  But their lives were desperate, repeating formula stories.  Quite unlike her heroine, Lucy Maud lived with a profoundly depressed Presbyterian minister husband and finally committed suicide.  Was the misery of their lives compensated by the books so many women love?

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Disillusionment about the world of Cowboy Art and all the mythology of patriotism and genius have followed.  None of the realistic biographies of Charlie Russell or Zane Grey or Ernest Haycox or -- indeed! -- Ernest Hemingway have been really accepted or digested.  We love our illusions, our addictions.  Every few weeks someone contacts me to ask hopefully whether their Scriver bronze is worth lots and lots of money.  Usually they are just small unimportant pieces of mostly sentimental value.  

Asian Hungry Ghost

Native American hunger haunt

Hungry ghost is a concept in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs.”  I don’t know whether anyone has ever written a comparison with the woodland Indian monster Wendigo who is starved into cannibalism, not surprising in an ecology where the people hunted smaller animals and depended on water travel.  The high dry prairie was a good place to be in the days of the buffalo and horse.  Less so in the days of the nodding pump jack.  But good enough for me.

Many thought systems teach us to laugh at hardship and the dispersal of vanity.  Such pressures clear the way.  For what exactly, we might not know, but that's the point.  If it were all just what you expected, how could you be astonished by living?  What might happen now that the days are getting longer?


Anonymous said...

This is crazy, I guess, but trading your place for one in Butte might offer better prospects. If ever you need help, please talk to me.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Crazy is right! Of ALL the places I might go -- and I would have to be FORCED to leave this house -- BUTTE is the last place I would ever consider. I can't tell you how much I dislike Butte. Richard, your whole life and career is based on the idea of making a living writing and protecting your prospects, but mine is NOT. I don't think you can understand my goals, why I write, or even what I say in my writing. I don't wish to be rude, and I don't want to attack your decisions, but this comment really IS crazy.

Mary Scriver
(Prairie Mary)