Wednesday, January 25, 2006


The warm wind roared and pried and battered at the sides of the houses. Stovepipes ripped out of their sockets. Garbage cans rolled down the streets. Branches tore off trees and flailed at every obstacle. Some comforted themselves with the thought that their houses had survived previous storms. But what about themselves? This mental pounding.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dan Connolly: The Cowboy Rode Off

From the Great Falls Tribune. (January 22, 2006)

Daniel Brian Connolly, 88, a rancher and horse trader from Starr School, died of natural causes Thursday at a Browning hospital.

Services were Monday at Little Flower Parish, with burial in Willow Creek Cemetery. Whitted Funeral Chapel of Cut Bank handled arrangements. Condolences may be sent to the family at

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Phyllis Connolly of Starr School; a daughter, Brenda (Jim) Johnston of White Sulpur Springs, sons Ron White, Jack Connolly and Kalvin Brian (Karen) Connolly, all of Browning. Seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. he is also survived by two sisters, Nora Lukin and Ruby Horn, and brothers Charles, Victor, and Bud, all of the Browning area.

Dan was born February 9, 1917, in Browning to Brian and Ida (Johnson) Connolly and grew up in the Crown Butte/Meriwether area. He attended grade school at Blackfoot, Cut Bank John School and the Cut Bank Boarding School. He married Phyllis Horn in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, on August 17, 1962.

Dan was an active rancher and horse trader all his life. He enjoyed participating in rodeo, hunting, fishing, working with leather, cutting studs, branding colts, sharpening knives, berry hunting [in earlier days, when he could get up and down the hills, he picked them by the bucket], picnicking with family and friends, and story telling.

The family suggests memorials to the Circle of Life in Browning.


Dan Connolly was the kind of man that is usually portrayed in the movies by some long lean charismatic actor. Usually he’s supposed to be a loner who never really belongs anywhere, but that wasn’t the case with Dan. He was both Blackfeet Indian and horse-centered cowboy. (The split between sheepmen and cowmen was sociological in early days -- but once again Dan was inclusive, raising both sheep and cows. The split between cowmen and horsemen is different, though being Blackfeet has something to do with it. A matter of the heart.) One of his childhood friends testified that when they played “cowboys and Indians,” Dan was both, on horseback.

East of Browning and north of Highway 2 is a complex country full of ranches and buttes, mostly grazing land. Kids out that way grow up on horseback and often get an early start on rodeo. Descent, one of the famous bucking horses, grew up out there and so did his relative Playboy, who was Bob’s best posing horse and had the best gait of any of his horses, but bucked everyone off, including Bob.

Darrell Kipp grew up out that way in what some call “Del Bonita country” and others call “God’s Country” and remembers Dan as the “chief” though no one used that term. He wasn’t elected or certified by some professional body -- he just WAS the man who knew what to do and the man who could get it done. If you were about to undertake something big or risky, you’d be smart to drop by and ask Dan what he thought about it.

Once Bob and I and the grandkids were trying to haze our little remuda of five horses into a corral. They were frisky on new grass and not at all inclined to go in -- we were on foot. We ran and ran until we fell flat in the grass with exhaustion. About then Dan came riding up, his long legs almost wrapped around his horse. “You folks tryin’ to put them horses in that corral?” he asked. (It’s always good to ask -- maybe we’d just invented a new form of tag.)

“Yes, yes!” we cried in unison, and Dan put ‘em in there in about three minutes. Of course, the horses took one look at Dan and knew they’d better do what he wanted.

Darrell tells about a school out that way that confused all the school records from that early time. On paper sometimes kids went to Higgins School and sometimes to Connolly School. Turned out that the little one-room school was on skids and when there were more Higgins kids attending, the building was dragged over to the Higgins ranch. But if there were more Connollys, the building traveled back to their ranch. Dan said he went to Higgins school, but Charlie and Nora are sure there wasn’t a Higgins School until afer Dan had finished with school. The early school, which Nora and Dan attended, was known as Cut Bank John, after John Kipp rather than a Connolly. The school was held in the upstairs of the Kipp home, one of the few two story houses around, probably originally built as a rooming house in the years when Blackfoot town was the rail head and crews stayed over while the trains were turned around.

Dan had that wonderful characteristic of ranchers around here of teaching as they go through the day. Darrell says Dan taught them to always remove the bit from their horses’ mouths when they were letting them graze. “How would you like to eat with a spoon tied crosswise in your teeth?” he asked. In late years Dan made it a point to encourage the work of Piegan Institute, crossing the cafe to say a few words in the morning.

Herman Whitegrass at the funeral mass told about borrowing a stock rack from Dan for his pickup when he was hauling some horses. When he got back and went to take the rack out to return it, he picked up some wire cutters. He’d wired it in and thought he’d just cut the wire. Dan nudged him aside, produced pliers and carefully unwound all the wires. “Saves wire,” he said. But this man said he had the uncomfortable feeling that if he’d gone to unwind the wire, Dan would have said, “You’re wasting time!” and produced wire cutters.

Dan loved kids and instructed them as well. They were to pull their weight, keep quiet, and be polite. He didn’t care whose kids they were -- if one was rebellious, they got settled down. He loved horses but was unfinching about cutting, branding, and canning them when they weren’t good for anything else. During WWII his canner horses fed the French people.

Dan came by his knowledge, sense of propriety, and passion for horses through his middle name, Brian, which was for his father, “Briney.” The nickname was quite appropriate for such a salty character. It would be hard to find a more colorful reservation force. Sometimes on the Tribal Council and sometimes afflicting the Tribal Council, he prospered and therefore was the object of accusations and jealousy. Prosperity is a Connolly characteristic but they have no need to cut corners. Dan would go to a stock auction, sit and listen for a while, then -- while others were working their charts and pocket calculators, he’d make some figures on the back of his Copenhagen tin, bid, and come away with a better deal than anyone else.

There are variant spellings of the Irish-based name: Connolly, Connelly, and Conway. On the rez the three names get slid around a bit, misspelled or incorrectly corrected and there are family opinions (linked to their Irish genes) about which is proper. Conway is more a mistake of the ear, a totally different family. But no one mistakes Dan or Briney.

Darrell says Briney bought his cars new, but within a few months they looked as though they’d been driven over a cliff. Once as a kid Darrell was thumbing rides when Briney stopped in a big old Jeep truck of some sort. As he drove, the gear shift came out of its socket, but Briney just stuck it back in. He always had a little candy or a nickel for a kid.

At the end of the Catholic mass, Jim Johnston, Dan’s son-in-law, read the poem “A Cowboy Prayer” by Badger Clark. The poem was written in 1917, the year Dan was born. The eulogy was read by Mary Lynn Lukin, Dan’s niece, who has had an admirable career at Montana State University where she supported and guided students in the Advance By Choice Program. Another descendent named Moriah Kipp (her mother is Kathy Connolly Kipp) sang a cappela “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” unerringly in a ringing soprano voice. (She is a successful contestant in high school singing competitions and a good barrel racer.) Then the guitar partnership of Herman Whitegrass (nephew-in-law) and Gabe Grant sang, “And The Cowboy Rode Off,” a favorite of Ernie Pepion.

The wind had pounded on the land all night as though it were drumming. The snow has been gone for weeks and the hills swelled tan and rough with winter grass. Huge white clouds crowded over the mountains, revealing this edge and then that edge, and left a little snow. The horses were bunched in the low places and behind buildings with their rumps to the wind. This is God’s Country.


The funeral mass was for a cowboy who was an Indian, the kind of person the movies try to capture. Born during WWI, he grew up on horseback close to the Canadian border. If there aren’t horses in heaven, he won’t stay there very long. Correction: he’ll sell some to God to improve the place.

Monday, January 23, 2006


“Curse you, Herman.” The rancher’s first-time heifer had been bred by a neighbor’s extra large bull that got over the fence. Now the calf could not be born without help -- and the heifer might not survive the ordeal. Rancher and cow strained and struggled.

“Damn you, Herman!” Herman was not the bull but the neighbor.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


Cat was sleeping on top of the television set where it was warm. Natural history program came on. “Garumph!” from a frog. Cat opened one eye.

Lot of sonorous narration. Elephant trumpeted. Cat raised her head. Put it down.

Owl hooted. Cat went under the sofa. She recognized that one. Owl almost got her once.

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Last week the buttercups in Montana's Bitterroot Valley were blooming. No one has heard of them ever blooming in January. Usually the little yellow six-petaled waxy flowers come in March.

But the newspaper says this is only the fifth warmest winter on record.

Prairie Mary

Friday, January 20, 2006


Working late, the young lab tech peered closely at his Petri dish and asked, “What’s this fruitfly doing in my agar-agar?”

His co-worker looked. “The backstroke!” They cracked up.

The tech turned back to his work, caught a sleeve on the microscope and dropped the Petri dish. Smash. “There goes the hope of humanity!” Laughter.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


While she washed dishes she sang Broadway musical songs. “I Love You, Porgy!” and “Poor Jud Is Dead.” Her husband heard and came to pick up the dish towel. It wasn’t the singing -- it was the happiness that attracted him. Had from the very beginning. She looked at him, winked, and began “Old Man River.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


“Gram? Gram, want some tea?”

Gram is watching ice skating competition on television. She remembers: her muscles sing, her spine flexes, her lungs breathe evenly, she flies on a silver edge. No one alive today has seen her skate. She gave away her trophies.

“Gram, come away from the television. You need to get more exercise.”

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


The about-to-retire teacher took no nonsense off anyone. She went to confront the coach about his team’s bad grades.

The coach called the boys out from the lockerroom and they emerged half-dressed with bare chests and Spandex pants, crotches and thighs padded. They reeked of sexuality and health.

Unable to speak, she turned and left.

Monday, January 16, 2006


First try: too boring. Second try: too sexy. Someone might take it personally. Third try: snarky. Fourth try: giving too much away. Fifth try: nice irony. Sixth try: now we’re cookin’.

Nanofiction: old dance, more dangerous when cyberized. Anyone might read it. So who is the audience? Will they think this is the real me?

Sunday, January 15, 2006


The mall opened early so senior citizens could walk for exercise in bad weather. Women walked -- men reverted to “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by.”

One woman sat down for a breather. A man sat next to her.

“Bother someone else!” she snapped. “I’m no pickup.”

He wept. “I’m so lonely.”

Saturday, January 14, 2006


The fact that her daughter was a military pilot in Iraq seemed unnatural.

When she went out to the compost, she saw in the swirly sky a bright line, unnaturally straight. It was like a line drawn by an angel’s finger.

She knew it was just a jet contrail, but was it also a sign?

Friday, January 13, 2006


Three queen-sized housewives procrastinated over coffee and cigarettes in the local cafe. The sleek town banker passed their table. “Gooood morning, little ladies!” he purred.

“Up yours, buddy,” muttered one rebel, blowing smoke. The others snickered.

At a nearby table the librarian, gracious and disciplined, overheard, but held her book higher to hide her smile.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


The tough old rancher was told he had incurable macular
degeneration. He was seemingly not emotional, but told his wife that he was thinking about what to read for the last time before he went blind.

Later she came into the room and, seeing a book in his hands, asked what it was.

“’Goodbye, Moon.’”

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Saturday night and the whole small town was at a dance. A dignified old rancher looked around for a likely woman and spotted a retired schoolteacher.

“I don’t dance”

“Sure you do.” He pulled her out on the floor.

In a bit he returned her. “You don’t dance and you’re too drunk if you did!”

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


According to Wikipedia, Ben Hur Lampman (November 27, 1886–March 2, 1954) was a U.S. newspaper editor, essayist, short story writer, and poet. He was a longtime editor of The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, and he served as poet laureate of Oregon from 1951 until his death.

“He began publishing nature essays in The Oregonian. His stories and essays also appeared in national magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. Some of his essays about life in Portland were collected in his 1942 book “At the End of the Car Line.” In 1943 he won an O. Henry Award for his short story "Blinker Was a Good Dog", which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Some of his papers and manuscripts are now in the collection of the library of the University of Oregon. He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Portland.”

This morning I couldn’t find my copy of “At the End of the Car Line,” which is essentailly the same as a “blook,” except that it’s a compilation of columns instead of a blog. The full title of the column was “The Little Old Lady at the End of the Streetcar Line.” When I say “LOL, that’s who I mean -- “little old lady” -- not “lots of laughter” or “lots of luck,” which are the more modern phrases. Lampman used his LOL as a ventriloquist’s puppet to speak the obvious truth that even an out-of-it and impaired person knows, mostly through life experience. She’s a wise little old lady in her rickety rocker on her overgrown porch.

But this blog is not about Ben Hur Lampman or his LOL, well-loved as they were. This is about an old man who lived in Browning across the main street (actually it was two highways on top of each other and only became the main street by default when the perpendicular and original main street withered) from the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife. His name was Mister Dick. He was a retired barber.

Mister Dick’s claim to fame was that when Ben Hur Lampman got married, Mr. Dick prepared him for the wedding. Lampman had been doing labor on the Canadian Plains before he returned to North Dakota and married Lena Sheldon, a New York City resident who had moved to the Dakotas to become a school teacher. Then his family moved to Oregon. Mr. Dick must have done his vital preparation in North Dakota about the time of WWI, maybe just before, in that Edwardian decade when people were optimistically seeking opportunity. The son of a small-town newspaper man marries a school ma’arm from back east. The roots of one classic Western paradigm.

Mister Dick loved to tell about his bathtub room in back of the barbershop and just how he carefully shaved Ben Hur with a straight razor, trimmed up his sideburns a bit, then “braced” his cheeks, dusted his neck, and pomaded his hair. “He was a fine sight,” declared Mister Dick who was evidently never married, himself. It was the high point of Mister Dick’s life as much as it was of Ben Hur Lampman’s.

Once when my mother, visiting Browning from Portland where BHL was quite famous when I was in what would be junior high today, came to the grocery store with me. I introduced her to Mister Dick where I knew she would be safely parked for a half hour. “You did that on purpose!” she accused. My defense was, “But think of the good it did to Mister Dick to find someone who actually knew who Ben Hur Lampman was!”

Mister Dick’s house was no more than a shanty with a shed attached. I rented a house next door to him and though it was modest, it was luxurious compared to that of Mister Dick, which was knocked together of unpainted boards. There were Moccasin Flat cabins that were more weather-tight and convenient. I was never inside but not sure there was running water or electricity. What I did know, from eyewitness accounts, was that there were clotheslines strung all over the single room and on them were pinned violin parts, for Mister Dick’s hobby was making violins. On rare occasions I could hear him scraping out a bit of music, but he never seemed to play publicly. Those who had been inside also claimed that he hoarded newspapers in stacks, so that a person had to sidle between them to cross the room.

But I saw Mister Dick often, because he took a daily walk towards the mountains no matter what the weather might be. To say he walked with a cane would be misleading. He used his cane as a baton, waving and even twirling it, though he never threw it in the air. He brandished it, he celebrated his walk with it. If it were cold, his other equipment was a long plaid wool scarf with ends that flew on the wind like pennants. No one was ever as joyfully alive as Mister Dick on a walk!

Kenny Hofland, also a barber, lived next door on the other side and I thought he might be some relation, but his attitude to the world was far more downbeat. He was a sceptic, a pessimist. Possibly this was because he never prepared a famous man for a wedding, a small memory but a jubilant one and maybe as good a high point as any for a life wherein the rememberer was never married.

When Mister Dick died, he was found standing up, propped up by all his accumulated debris of newsprint and musical instruments. I didn’t see him like that, but I imagine him on this last trip with his jaunty cane and billowing scarf, a sort of human sailboat with an even keel.



The widowed farm wife’s old cat slept with her. One morning she woke to find he had died. The ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave under her favorite tree, so she wrapped the small body decently and sent it with the trash.

In spring that tree blew down and she was inconsolable.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Nanofiction 1-9-06

Two women, longtime friends, gossiped in a summer yard, shrieking with laughter, moaning with pain, and swearing with anger. They rocked in their wicker chairs, twitched at their flowered sundresses, and refreshed their lemonade.

The striped cat sat quietly overhead on the garage roof, paying as close attention as an opera lover. Finally it yawned.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


One writes a blog without knowing who is out there. Some are trying to reach a farflung audience -- national, maybe -- or a particular layer of society, most commonly what is called the “chattering classes” -- meaning those who talk and write all the time, often about artistic or historic matters. Somehow the phrase always suggests India to me, I think because Chatterjee is an Indian word and partly because that country has an uncommonly large and capable members of that class.

But particularly on this blog (I also have two others), I imagine my audience to be in this geographical region. A subcategory, probably one quite a bit smaller, is those who have the same interests that I do -- which is what drives my choice of topics. I’m hoping that includes reservation people.

Those who wish to write -- or maybe those I wish would write -- are at the heart of that. When I started out with the Merry Scribber , I intended to provide a source of materials for teaching high school English. But what I’m finding is that I’m more likely to be read by the college student -- and on the reservation that means not late teenagers but early middle age -- say, forty. These people are now ready to write, if they only knew how to begin. At over sixty I feel just about ready to begin and knowledgeable about how to do it. The eighty year olds, except for those who have been writing all along, are beyond the physical labor of writing -- even handwriting, and much less the technicalities of keyboarding. So I’m going to another level, but in addition to the elementary exercises, which are often fun.

The other day I got a box and began gathering all my “how to write” books into it. I had to go get a second box. It’s time to confront these books, digest them and maybe dispense with them, but I think I’ll review them (on the Merry Scribbler blog) as I go. There’s not time (I don’t mean time in my day, but rather time in my LIFE) to reread them -- but I can note their style and method. They’ve become more talismans for success than real reference sources anyway.

One I know I will keep (among some others that I still use) is the most recently acquired. It arrived on Saturday, when the post office is closed except for the letter boxes, but the postmaster heard my voice and stepped out to hand it to me. (I TOLD you she was a peach!) “Narrative Design” by Madison Smartt Bell. I discussed the first chapter, “Unconscious Mind,” on Merry Scribbler 1-7-06.

Bell speaks of the right-brain as being the location of the subconscious, at least as we use it in pursuit of humanities: art, music, books. The point of his discussion was that writing workshops teach craft but NOT the right brain issues: how one gets access to what is stored there, what might happen if one does it too clumsily, and what to do with what you find. Most people, thanks to Freud who thought up this word and sensationalized it by positing that mostly it’s full of sex, will admit they have a subconscious but hugely overestimate how much control over it they really have -- even the people who drink and take drugs in attempts to evade it.

The image I always think of is the one in the first Star Wars episode where the main characters are trapped in a trash reservoir, full of what seem to be machinery parts half-submerged in water but also inhabited by predatory, tentacled, and probably carnivorous creatures we never see unless dragged under the surface by them. (The Blackfeet have had a vivid fear of being dragged under the water by monsters, some declining to learn to swim since struggles are hopeless against greater forces that want you to drown.)

The major component of that unconscious is one’s experience of acquiring and giving meaning to the sensorium of life, but that’s another blog. There’s also a lot to be learned from the actual brain machinery and cultural context.

Clinical Pastoral Education is a specialized program that educates aspiring ministers. Rather like boot camp, it is also meant to flush out the undesirable. In the context of a hospital, where all the patients are on their way out -- one way or another -- each student is pressed hard to reveal their unconscious and conscience. Each small group of students is in the care and under the scrutiny of a leader, who also belongs to a small group of leaders who are under the guidance and ethical restraints of their own leader, who is also in a small group -- and so on. These are little mini-congregations, not unlike writing classes or AA.

Learning to write, says Bell (quite memorably) is not just a matter of learning craftsmanship: punctuation, grammar, metaphor, and so on. When I was teaching in the Seventies, we were willing to discard all this stuff and drive our hands down into the mess of the mind to shake hands with the tentacles. Now we seem to have done an about-face and to almost actively suppress the news that there is something under the surface. It was just too damned scary.

Who wants to know what it’s like inside the mind of a suicide-bomber? That’s part of it. Anyway, not many people can express what they find -- the mere fact of the discovery seems enough.

And as the economic times thin out and become taut, how much anger, contempt, remorse, ecstacy, pride and ethical standard does one dare reveal? I mentioned CPE because it was originally designed for conventional, rather repressed, young men in a culture that believed in maintaining a front. If the CPE pressure necessary to get that sort of person out in the open is applied to someone like myself at forty, someone who has already seen much trauma and drama, the leader may be overwhelmed. And he was.

He said, “I don’t want to get old and pick up a novel by you to find myself splayed and excoriated.” He said that he’d imagined we’d be buddies and happy to share beer and pizza in some bar some day. Too bad.

A lot of whites who hope for access to the cultural subconscious of Indians also imagine they will someday share beer and pretzels as buddies. They have no idea of the rage, the indignation, the thirst for vengeance, the greed, and the bloody-mindedness of people with seething sub-consciousnesses -- at least when they’re over forty. This is why readers misunderstand Sherman Alexie, even Indians.

I don’t have much idea of what’s in the unconsciousnesses of the TV generation. They have the sense not to share with adults. I think they are quite invested in withholding, so that it’s hard to get them to write anything at all. They decline to be taught about themselves. Just give them the craftsmanship lessons, so they are correct enough to earn a living.

What really counts for a writer is the courage to extend enough tentacle from the depths to hold a pen or at least keyboard.


The old fisherman loved being out in his little house hunched over a hole when the ice was really thick. But he left his pickup parked on land and walked all the way out. “Why not drive?” people asked.

“I like to walk on the water -- like Jesus,” he said smiling. They shook their heads.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Nano Novel 1/07/06


Snow cancelled school. The pretty young math teacher used the day for experimentation: face masks and hair treatments. She wore a ratty old robe.

Then the UPS man arrived with packages containing more potions. Still laughing that night, he told his wife the sight of that kid at the door made all the drift-busting worthwhile.

Friday, January 06, 2006


When Michael Blowhard (of asked me how I got into blogging, I had to say that when blogging come over the horizon, I was waiting with open arms. A few specific characteristics of blogs and myself make us a good fit.

No one controls what is said. In my 66 years it seems as though many persons around me have wasted a lot of energy shushing me, because I blurt and quip. It’s not only “why is the emperor wearing no clothes” but also “he sure has a funny-looking... belly button.” Mothers, editors, principals, department heads, get scared. As the mayor of Browning ordered Bob Scriver, “Get that woman under control!”

Though email is wonderful, one can create mailing lists of friends, and listservs are also an effective way to find a community, they are not perfect strategies. When I send an email, I presume a response but some people still only answer email once a month, if then. Mailing lists are always too long or too short (Someone is always angry at being left off or being included.) and the “mail” might not always be welcome. (I myself am very resistant about “forward this wonderful message or die” stuff. Or cute animal photos.) The list, in any case, is controlled, even if by someone tolerant and inclusive. One has to be “on” or “off” and remember to do something about long holidays so your inbox doesn’t get crammed, bounce messages, and gum up the works.

A blog is like a magazine article: long enough to finish the discussion, short enough to write in one session, sequential so a line of argument or information can be continued, and capable of accepting photos. It even provides attractive layout, which is a shortfall of email. People can read it, if and when they want to, and comment, if and when they want to. Otherwise a blog minds its own business and bides it time.

What makes a blog even more brilliant and useful is access through Google. A major problem of the modern world is that people of similar interests are scattered all over the globe. The City or University provide the physical concentration necessary for a lot of people with the same obsessions to talk to each other, but not all of us are temperamentally or economically suited for such a location.

I want to live out here on the Montana prairie, but I HAVE lived in cities and universities where I acquired a taste for talk about things of no interest except in those places. If I find the right blogs, I am restored to the “talk” whilst happily living here under the wind. And because I’ve lived in a lot of different places and on a lot of different social levels, I can keep up with everyone from the little old ladies in my UU congregations in New England to the granddaughters of my students here in Browning.

“Linking” is the other godsend, so that if one finds a pack of what Anne of Green Gables called “kindred spirits,” they are likely to know of other invigorating circles, maybe just slightly over on a different topic. It’s not just the topic, but the way it is interpreted. I still haven’t found an animal-related discussion group that is right for me. Nor one about religion. It’s also possible to use “links” as a kind of footnote that allows one to summon up the referenced article intact and instantly. What suits me best blog-wise, it seems, is an eclectic group of mature (ahem) educated people interested in the arts and loosely related topics, like

Not just the topic or the “inhabitants” of the blog make a difference. The “method” assumed to be appropriate to a blog is important. At first the comparison was “journalling” and the Me-generation was soon busy making daily posts about their mood, song du jour, and other gut-wrenching trivia. If they weren’t very verbal, they could always cut-and-paste expressive cartoons.

Then teachers saw that the “class blog” was much better than clumsy emailing. I once happened onto an ichthyology class exam that was nothing but photos of little fishes to be identified.

But the blog really made waves when it took advantage of the “evasion of censorship” and became political, both as observing journalism and as manifestos from the inside. These are the blogs that bridged to ‘zines, stalked politicians, corrected media error (not just spelling of names, but major near-felonies), made reputations and got shut down in China. This is the ONLY kind of blogging that many people know about, so what they think when one says, “I blog,” is that one is involved in attacking the authorities. It scares them.

A different kind of bridging to print has just arrived enough to get a name, though it was always there: “blooks,” which are the downloading and binding of already blog-written materials. I’m doing that myself. A computer isn’t always handy for people who want to read what one has written. Sometimes the posts amount to chapers of a book anyway. I did this consciously with “Twelve Blackfeet Stories.” They should be read chronologically which is awkward on blogs, since the “top” is always the last post.

The biggest problem with blogs from a narrow point of view is that people are too intimidated or reluctant to look at a computer screen to read them. Their model is the clam, which attaches somewhere and waits for useful items to arrive on the tide. So -- progress is not their game. Often neither is sitting down to read, either with the computer or with a print-out. For them, the pod-cast! Throw it into your car’s CD player or your iPod, and you’re off. Passive, distracted, dependent on the voice quality of the reader. A kind of background sound the way everyone uses music. Oh, well.

The point is choice, suiting one’s situation. And that’s ALWAYS the point, no matter the age and resources. What’s so great for me is that blogging should show up just as I have the time, the skills, the resources, and the drive to do it. In my own way, of course. So no wonder I embraced blogging with joy.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


In August, 1961, I traveled from Portland to Browning to begin my first teaching job which was, like the character in the comic strip “For Better or For Worse,” on an Indian reservation. I dressed up like a school ma’arm in a Western: straw boater, silk blouse, little string of pearls. The spectacles were a constant. The distance is about a fourteen hour drive in a car, but on the Western Star of the Empire Builder it was about 24 hours. By the time we cleared the Summit of the Rockies, I was sitting on the edge of my seat -- sweaty, steamy, crumpled, and a little goofy.

The conductor, checking tickets, looked me over. Then he and the brakeman settled into the empty seat behind me and began a loud conversation.

“Understand we’re stopping in Browning this trip. Haven’t done that for a while.”

“Yep. And they say they found that fellow who’d been missing. He was murdered in the streets.”

“That so? Whereabouts?”

“Right in front of the post office -- that’s why they didn’t find him for days.”

Of course, they were just teasing me. They could have been Andy Devine and Walter Brennan.

The post office in a small Western town is just about the most visited spot there is. Mail in such a place is not delivered to your door. Rather you go get it. If you’re relatively permanent and solvent, you have your own little brass-doored box. The older, more fancy ones have a little window in the door, so you can see if anything is in there. I don’t know which is better: the moment of suspense when you open a door that has no window, not knowing what to expect, or the moment of suspense when you can see a nice clean envelope in there but don’t know what it is.

Likewise, I don’t know which is worse: a door with a combination lock so you have to remember the code, or a door with a key so you have to remember the key. Postmasters (and they are all postmasters even when they are female) are notoriously cranky about having to go get your mail out for you. Some aren’t even all that generous about looking through the general delivery mail which is back there with them, alphabetically sorted. And some are much too curious about what’s in the plain brown paper package you’ve just received, looking from the return address to your face as though they were your parent.

I get scolded for the packages I send out, mostly because of my lousy handwriting. At last I’ve learned to wrap and tape in a way that satisfies them. I used to get into trouble with string all the time. There was a terrible period when the new postal sorting machines couldn’t handle string, caught on it, and unraveled your package -- in those days one always included a second address inside the package on an index card.

Once at a Hyde Park postal station near the University of Chicago, I stood behind a man from India who had not wrapped his package in paper but carefully sewn it into canvas with tiny dressmaker’s stitches and written the address elegantly in India ink. The postmaster wouldn’t accept it because the stamps (both paper ones and purple ink ones from a stamper) would not stick to it. But in India his package would not arrive safely if only protected by paper -- what could he do?

When I was living in Canada, the female but mustached little round postmaster would rise on her toes and demand, “Why are all these letters going to the United States? Have you made no friends in Canada?” Actually, I was paying off bills accumulated on the Stateside. Postmasters in Canada must be bilingual (English and French) so they tend to come from Quebec where everyone is bilingual. (In Alberta people speak Western American and in Saskatchewan people speak Ukrainian.) Quebequois are inclined to feel morally superior, though studies show they are much more tolerant of drunks and crazies than the other provinces.

When I lived thirty miles from here, the postmaster was a woman with no mustache but dyed black hair. She was a meddling, trouble-making, gossiping woman but not French -- Greek pretending to be an Indian. She read your magazines before you did -- keeping them as long as it took -- and pretended your expected check was “lost in the mail” for a few days if you gave her trouble. The older Indians thought she could control the amounts on their SSI checks. She once showed me how much welfare one woman was getting by bending the window envelope a certain way. She told me she could smell beer on the school superintendent’s breath when he came for stamps. I could go on. They finally got her when a big load of grocery special circulars came in and she decided that putting them all in boxes was too much trouble, especially since no one had much money anyway, so she just dumped them in the wastebasket.

My present postmaster is a peach.

Bob Scriver, born in Browning in 1914, used to tell about the couple who ran the post office there for a while in the Forties. Their thing was punctuality. If it was time to close, you had to get your hands off the counter quickly or risk having them smashed by the window coming down to close the wicket.

These reflections were prompted by a news story about the displaced people of New Orleans going to a big sorting center to claim their mail, since now no one can find their street, let alone their house or house number and if you did, there would only be an empty foundation coated with toxic mud. Anyway, “occupants” might not be living within a thousand miles. Any check that was in the mail in New Orleans when the hurricane hit is gone forever. There are five hundred CHILDREN that haven’t been found yet and they weren’t in the mail. When the World Trade Towers crashed, their mail took to the air and rained down randomly on people clear across town. What was the name of that Kevin Coster movie about delivering the mail after the apocalypse?

Once Bob and I were driving out the Duck Lake road when we came upon a tri-colored shepherd running pell-mell along the edge. We figured he’d fallen out of the back of a pickup. Just fooling around, Bob stopped and inquired of the dog, “Wanna ride?” He did and hopped in. Then we stopped at every ranch access road we came to and said, “Is this your place?” None were.

So we took the dog home with us and started asking around about whose it was. No luck. The dog had his own strategy. He went down to the post office every day and sat there until his human showed up. Nothing stays unfound at the post office very long. Unless the postmaster is involved. Or there's a catastrophe. Amazing when you think about it.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006


The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction, edited by Wm. Kittredge and Allen Morris Jones. (Lyons Press, 2004) (Lyons Press, rather strangely, is located back east but prints a LOT of Montana subjects, a legacy from Falcon Press maybe.)

“Oh, no,” you cry. "Not another one!" But it’s true and most of the usual suspects are here, since the usual editor is here -- although with the assistance of Jones rather than Smith. Bass, Beer, Blew, Ford and Fromm. But there are some voices I hadn’t noticed before.

Claire Davis in “Grounded” has created a classic. A teenaged boy who is “grounded,” runs away from home. His single mom sees what he’s up to and goes along with him, though a few feet behind. An old man gives the boy some good advice, though he’s a bit puzzled about how his mother is coming along, too. They storm on through the day until they are finally to the edge of a night sleeping on the ground. Then the balance changes and the MOM runs away! Her son follows. You know the danger has passed. (I admired Davis' novel "Winter Range" which was rather trampled by Judy Blunt's "Breaking Clean." The two books came out about the same time and describe similar time and place, but are nothing alike otherwise. Blunt wrote memoir, Davis was writing a mystery. Both are tough, but that was function of the setting.)

If you are in need of a story to “compare and contrast” with “Brokeback Mountain” (you’ll be able to tell whether your student actually read the Annie Proulx short story -- a pretty tough tale -- or only saw the movie), you could not do better than Kim Zupan’s “The Mourning of Ignacio Rosa.” I would never presume to say which one is better, but they are different and yet the same.

Both editors included short stories of their own and they are not necessarily the best stories. Jones, in particular, has written something that is a series of violent episodes -- more pulp genre that what one usually sees in such anthologies, which have a heavy tilt to the academic and workshop styles.

You won’t find Bowen, Wheeler, Stan West, or the other masters of plot development. These stories are in the tradition of the shift of consciousness, the gradual realization, etc. Many girl friends with Crow features, many scenes of social injustice, many cries of despair -- almost all from white, basically middle-class, sort of thirtyish males. All unaware of global politics, the state of the grass (except for the smoking kind), or what commodities are doing on the stock market. (Lots of talk about cows.) No stories about skiing, snowmobiles, trophy mansions, or gourmet eating -- so much for the high end of the social scale in Montana. Two boxing stories, one with a female boxer. I blame them on Clint Eastwood.