Thursday, December 31, 2015


Coffee shop discussions always start with the weather and it doesn’t have to be bad weather.  In fact, this fall’s excellent late weather on the East Slope lulled me and others into believing that we had more time to prepare for winter than was actually true.  There was talk about an “open winter.” 

Then my sewer line to the street was blocked or collapsed, but at least the ground wasn’t frozen.  The town dug up the half towards the street and two plumbers looked at the house-side.  One used a giant roto-rooter.  I did not know that my side of the sewer was Orangeburg and neither did he.  Roto-rooters buckle Orangeburg.  The bill was $345, but luckily I have a little Christmas money.  Sullivan came to look at replacing the Orangeburg and managed to get the flow restored so long as I don’t throw TP down it, so I save the wads in a bucket and burn them in my little garage wood stove.  He couldn’t dig it up right away because the town of Brady contracted for new water meters with some fancy out-of-state operation that screwed it all up and he was helping to get their water back by Christmas.  They tell me most of it is fixed now.  The Valier crew was monitoring the weather and dumped a lot of sand into the open trench just in time to prevent freezing.

The alley.

Northwestern Energy supplies both our electricity and gas.  They took advantage of the weather by replacing the town power poles.  There were a few gaps of nearly an hour with no electricity, but the crews tried to time them so they didn’t interfere with meal preparation.  I was glad to see the improvement because dirty electricity interferes with computers — gaps and surges are not good for them.  I wondered what it was doing to the telephone lines which I suppose were on the same poles.  And you saw a photo of them from my kitchen window where the cats took careful notes.

The next problem was that my carbon mono detector operates off the house electrical circuits and if there’s an interval, it screams like a banshee.  The work on the poles was setting it off.  I couldn’t distinguish what was poles and what was gas and began to have worries.  I’m using the floor furnace.  Part of the reason I keep this old-fashioned heat is that it works by convection so I’m not at the mercy of electricity.  But I’ve lost friends to carbon mono.  I ordered a battery operated monitor.

Then, just in time for Christmas, we were abruptly in  winter: below zero temps and snow.  My little old pickup refused to start.  The headbolt heater wasn’t working, somehow.  But I had bought a battery charger and it worked.  I thought.  By then it was late in the day so I ran the engine for a while (everyone in town runs their engine for a long time in the mornings, esp. the big diesel pickups) and figured I could get back to do my first-of-the-month big grocery buy the next day.  But the next day the battery hadn’t held a charge enough to start the engine.  I had to get a new battery or stop driving.  The problem is that if the pickup won’t start, I can’t get to a town big enough to stock a battery and batteries can’t be sent UPS or whatever.  I spent a good part of the day trying to revive this battery, but then I remembered that I had joined AAA.    

I had noticed their car insurance rates: HALF what I’ve been paying in Cut Bank for the last ten years.  So I switched.  I have never made a claim.  The insurance woman was insulted and billed me fifty bucks for what she said was coverage I hadn’t paid for.  I pushed that back on my monthly bill cycle twice.  She sent it in for collection without calling me, I’m sure in hopes of hurting my credit.  The collection agency called me as early as was legal on the day after Christmas and I just put it on my VISA.

My VISA is supposed to be for my teeth because I can never predict what’s needed or how much it is.  Now my problem turned out to be that the dentist’s practice, which was owned by a local health care organization, got involved in a wrangle because of a new manager from back East who wanted to force modern practices.  That meant enclosing the receptionist behind a locked door and eliminating all the mounted heads that the dentist and his wife had collected in the field.  I do not have morbid ideas about trophies: I was married to a taxidermist.  In fact, our previous dentist was the one in this same office who sold the younger man his practice.  Now both dentists have left.  I haven’t found another one.  These local practices, which used to be one dentist and one helper, are now half-a-dozen young women doing peripheral things for which one is billed.  They INSIST.  To them it’s not about teeth: it’s gums.  They expand their territory all the time.  Now they've started talking ear/nose/throat.  They want total access.

Something similar happened at the local doctor clinic.  There is a glamorous Physician’s Assistant who let people think her Ph.D. was an MD and a second less-glamorous MD on a different day — she IS an MD.  My previous doc is in Great Falls, which you can guess is a problem with my dubious pickiup, but the last straw was when this prom queen PA said she would not renew my meds unless I did exactly what she said.  I do not want a doc with control issues who is racking up billing hours.

When people think about moving to a small country town where everyone is full of rural wisdom and high character, they don’t think about this kind of stuff.  It doesn’t occur to them that one might have only one bathroom and one vehicle.  They don’t even think about what’s under the ground.  I’m told that plumbing infrastructure across the state is like the trees:  the same thing was done by everyone about the same time with the same materials and now decades later the corroded galvanized water lines all over Montana start splitting and all the aged-out silverleaf cottonwoods are crashing in the high winds.  The only town mechanic is hospitalized with kidney disease and the only town grocery store is full of local political issues.  

So now this guy sends an email.  He got my name off a list of Northwestern University alumni in Montana and wants to get us all rounded up so we can watch TV football and drink beer together.  He’s a writer — a journalist with a speciality in sports.  Luckily, he lives in Billings which is over 300 miles away.  He does not grasp how different we are.  Good thing, that!  At my much later U of Chicago graduation ceremony the speaker advised us that no matter where we hid, the alumni association would find us.  Both universities are after me to donate.  They sold me that degree so I'd tithe to them the rest of my life.

While I was between phone calls and slow realizations due to watching YouTube explanations of car batteries, I was continuing to follow the Ken Burns “Roosevelt” series on Netflix.  Wars, Depressions, suicides, alcoholism, power-mad mothers-in-law, polio — heck, it was just like everyone’s lives.  It’s all struggle with intervals of smooth sailing — some of them pretty short.  Friends and helpers, lovers and pups and relatives, they come and they go.  As long as we don’t run out of cat food or TP, everything will work out just fine.  Eventually.

Sure enough, now it's Thursday and Greg brought up a new battery, installed it right in the driveway, and told me my previous battery was too small.  For years I've thought it was my starter failing!  Now I turn the key and it's zoom zoom, instead of sputtersputter.  

In minutes I was on my way to Cut Bank for grub.  The wind is coming up -- I started under bright cloudless sky and came back in rising wind, snow snaking and sometimes sheeting across the highway.  I only forgot to buy two things: envelopes and cat treats. 


Anonymous said...

Envelopes? No problem. P.0. Cat treats? You're in trouble sister!

Richard S. Wheeler said...

This is one of your finest posts. It underlines the desperate condition of rural Montana, where people are underserved and those who remain are often not competent, or have character problems. There may be some help coming thanks to technology. Competent doctors in cities are reaching rural patients by remote video interviews. The technique was pioneered on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is no doctor but a med tech on hand who is able to dispense prescribed meds, and do basic monitoring such as pulse and blood pressure and certain lab work. It may not be as fine as walking into a good medical office, but it is a valuable option in rural areas. If you should get into a jam please call on me and I will help whatever way I can.

My new address is

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

THANKS for the offer of help, Richard. Can I send you a cat? I have to send two because they're devoted to each other.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Can't manage it. I will soon be 81 and don't expect to see 82. But I would be honored to sponsor the two cats for a year, and would send you a check to cover all their costs. Let me know.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Since I spent ten years in the ministry, I'm aware of how problematic monetary generosity can be. The dimension of obligation or how to figure an amount. I remember your gift of the electric lap robe, which I have to admit I passed on to Rose across the alley when she was dying of cancer and couldn't get warm.

There are six cats here, not counting the "Goldfish" who is a yellow kitten not quite grown and not quite separated, who comes and goes. Then there's the cat from across the street who prefers to dine here. The two cats I've had since 2003 or so don't look so good. They are cross and wasting with tufty coats. I don't know if they will make it to spring, let alone next Christmas. They don't eat much now.

The two I sometimes despair of are the Striped Terror and his little buddy, the Dust Bunny. They rampage through the house at inconvenient hours and would be happy to eat until they explode. But their chief delight is biting and wrestling, which cost nothing. I was delighted to discover that Amazon will deliver fifty cent cans of cat food! I do not know who delivers cats.

The two Feral Fertile Myrtles who have moved to the unheated garage, finding the back shed not so congenial except for the holes they've dug underneath, are judicious in their needs. The biggest problem is that the garage is unheated and when it goes below zero, the canned cat food, which is their preference, freezes faster than they can eat it. They have boxes with space blanket linings. In the deep night I sometimes hear the cat flap creak.

Only three of these six cats allow themselves to be petted. I have a live trap but they are experienced and wary. I could catch them if I doctored their food with ketamine as we used to do at animal control with wild animals, but it is a restricted drug now.

Your offer is kind and generous, but I'm unable to resolve the issues. Maybe approaching 77 has limited my brain power.

Prairie Mary

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I'd be glad to help you get a couple of heated cat beds. They are inexpensive, use 20 watts, and are safe and waterproof. See Amazon's display of heated cat beds. You could get them in GF at a pet store, or get them from Amazon, or I could get them at Amazon and have them mailed to you. I'd like you to have a warm, comfortable, less stressful time this winter, along with your feline friends. You've struggled hard, and have given us absorbing insights, and now I'd like to make the winter seem a little warmer, if I may. I lost my old cat a few days ago, and would like whatever I do to be a memorial to her.

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

So sorry to hear about your kitty, Richard. I know you were a bonded pair and it's hard to imagine a writer without a cat. I didn't know cat beds were so cheap! I'll accept your offer and let you have the pleasure of picking them out. I see there are good sales all over.

Or maybe you'd prefer a warm water bowl. The cats are always thirsty in cold weather. I take them water but it's ice very quickly.

The indoor cats sleep under a light bulb or in front of one of those infrared heaters, which keeps my backside warm as well. My feet go on a "secretary's friend," which is a heated food rest. Highly recommended!

You're very kind, Richard. But we already knew that.

Prairie Mary

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I've ordered three Moolecole dog/cat 20 watt heating beds to be sent directly to you from Amazon (to you at Box 295 in Valier). The electricity for all three will probably be less than the one heating lamp you are using. I hope these will keep your little guys comfortable. You can see the pad on Amazon's website. Expect them Friday Jan 8. I'll see about a heated bowl next.

With love,


Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Thanks very much, Richard! The cats will be very pleased and I'll explain to them. Also kiss the ones I can touch-- three of them.

The Striped Terror has been napping up on top of a set of drawers about six feet tall, I suppose to escape the fond attention of his little buddy, the Dust Bunny. The Terror is the most intelligent of all the cats. I say to him, "Where's your little Bunny?" And he looks around as though he understands. Squibbie used to be the muscle around here, but now she's only irritable. She esp. hard on the Dust Bunny.

Prairie Mary