A little puddle where it shouldn't be.
My work day kind of got washed out. It’s a long story, but it’s about water. A week ago a nice little reflecting pond formed in front of my house. No bubbling, no spreading, just a quiet little pond in about the same place we dug up a year or so ago. So I let the Town Hall know. Nothing happened.
There are two employees of the town. Both have been here decades and much of the vital info about the infrastructure is in their heads. The previous mayor, McKenzie Graye, got them to draw maps and write accounts, but that’s never enough. In the last few days one man’s family sustained tragedies and the other man was struggling with his health, which has suffered for a long time. The men are aging and wearing right along with the infrastructure. They are human infrastructure.
This small town accumulates complaints, resentments, vendettas -- just like any small town. Actually the dynamics are a lot like a small church except without the constant attention to morality (if they have a decent minister). A church is based on consensus of moral standards; a town is not, esp. in a time like this when the shifting of populations is at a high and unpredictable rate. Some have fantasies, some are struggling with low income, some don’t look different but are, and so on. The upshot is a LOT of complaint and accusation, building and building and building . . .
All my training in “getting to yes,” “building consensus,” “creating mission-statements” and organizational development are useless. The people are blind to them. Not myself nor anyone else has the credibility to move intransigence out of the way so we have space for a future. Every viable candidate for the last decade has been almost immediately hamstrung by gossip and semi-secret, often irrelevant accusations. At the moment we’re voting by mail. The present mayor is a space-holder, not a candidate. He was strong-armed into the job and will be relieved to escape.
Today, pursuing how to get my water leak fixed, I was told that our water master had quit. I am kerflummoxed. He has found another job, better suited to his health issues. Now some people will have to come to terms with hating him so much. In any case, his gout has become so severe that sometimes he can’t make a grip on a shovel handle, much less dig. (Somehow I’m not surprised that in the last windstorm the trees in his front yard fell on his pickup.) The plan is for him and Leo, the other worker, to dig on Monday. I’ll be surprised. There are no backup younger men who have been groomed for the job. Everyone has used up their energy hating and resisting the two workers. Who wants to walk into a shit storm?
The alternative is to hire an outside contractor. There’s one right here in town who knows the pipes, has worked for the town before, and has been on the town council. A kafuffle about a gravel purchase ballooned into a bitter quarrel and he’s been out of the loop for years. Maybe he won’t be willing to dig.
I haven’t been an activist but rather a monitor, attending the town council meetings, trying to see both the small trip-wires and the big national forces that are affecting us. It’s worth doing partly because I’m living here and partly because people from across the continent tell me that the dynamics where they are defeat their towns in the same ways of neglect and blame. It seems to be our present culture.
We want what we see on television and what advertising tells us are markers of virtue. We don’t have strategies for getting those things, but somehow it seems as though other people are doing it. They must be cheating. (See the pieces I’ve been writing about trying to reconcile gut feelings with logical deduction.)
All I’ve done is talk to people who I feel fairly sure will understand what I’m saying and who won’t react with rage. There aren’t many. My confidence in who is peaceful is not high. Too many are so invested in their widely shared accusations that they can’t back out of them. Big city liberals would be amazed at the woman-haters, Indian-haters, white-haters, poverty-haters, stigma-mongers. Unless we come to a crux point, it mostly stays hidden. Outside journalists would probably not detect it and they don’t really care about anything that’s not sensational enough to win prizes. The whole nation is based on sensationalism, and that’s not good for civics.
One of the most uncontrollable and predatory aspects of this situation is a state capital out of touch and imposing restrictions, building hatred and small town determination to avoid any kind of restrictions, let alone cooperation. They don’t see the need. Another equal force is economic: there isn’t enough work to make a living, civic organizations have faded, hobbies have given way to passive TV. Even something so virtuous as “National Geographic” is hard to assimilate through a beer haze or while chatting on a handheld.
The residents of the town live there and vote for town leaders, but the surrounding service areas (school districts, gas lines, electricity) mean people who use the town -- in fact, are the reason for the existence of the town -- don’t live there and don’t pay taxes or vote there. But these are not anarchists nor inclined to be laissez faire. They have to do SOMETHING to protect themselves so they use sock puppets, cat’s paws, proxies, raw personal influence, and the county machinery. This is not to mention the shell corporations who try to pick up the tax lien debris of a shrinking town. “Lakeside Montana Property!” Sales won’t be to locals.
The money involved in town government has exploded because it is capital investment fueled by grants and loans in major amounts (check the billboard in front of the City Hall) and laws that would impose huge fines for OSHA offenses, lagoon water quality offenses, failure to repay loans, etc. You can’t lock up the town, but you can make the people suffer by adding penalties to infrastructure bills. For the last fifty years I’ve watched businesses run to failure, the last assets simply abandoned.
And then there are the dynamics of living up against the reservation, not very far from the Canadian border. In a little town everyone thinks is Mayberry, USA, no one suspects drugs, smuggling, etc. How does one find the balance between suspecting everything and ignoring everything?
One of the fascinations in reading the historical records is that it soon becomes clear that the more things change, the more they remain the same. A few buffalo wandering through the picture is not going to make the water stop running downhill. But once the railroad is built and running, things get a lot easier and faster, except for the lives of human beings. The lives of the Conrad brothers, William right here, Charles in Kalispell, and John surviving for a while in Billings, until his wife left, taking the children to Europe. John was last sighted in Alaska. These sibs went from pleasant Virginia, to bloody Civil War, to risky frontiers, to ventures dependent on cattle and capital, to irrigated grain. The stories are exciting but end with diabetes, isolation, suicide, broken families, the usual alcoholism. In short, us.