Wednesday, April 26, 2006


This reservation (and some small towns) made a lot more sense to me when I learned to see the flow of non-monetary compensation. This is especially important when there is no money; for instance, among prisoners who create an economy out of cigarettes. I’m also talking about things that are not material, like secrets, sex, access and privilege. They are most visible when the mini-economy is affected by something that makes it shift. For instance, sex is so easily available (now that the threat of unwanted pregnancy or garden variety VD have been removed) that those who try to make a living by selling “sex” must move to some kind of more intense specialty: the addition of violence or perversion, for instance, or they won’t make money. That, in turn, affects what is accepted in a noncommercial context, in private relationships.

Secrets as commodities are doing a lively trade on the governmental level these days, with the President trying to buy exoneration for bad decisions with selected leaks and disgruntled insiders leaking other shocking facts and then the identity of the leakers becoming new secrets, except when the Vice-President leaks who certain blabbermouths are. But then his pockets go flat -- or ought to -- when the secret is told that it was he, the VP, who leaked this last secret. Of course, he -- as is clear from his income tax disclosure (and the real amount of his income was no doubt secret) -- doesn’t really have to dabble in secrets because he has cash money. Or maybe simple money isn’t really as valuable as secrets.

But what I wanted to get at in this little piece is some kind of understanding of prestige, status -- the sort of thing that used to be called honor, dedication, or even sometimes professionalism. At one time doctors had it. Today in Great Falls the doctors are in a big food fight over who can own a hospital and whether they have to take in emergency patients who can’t pay. This was once unthinkable. Religious orders ran hospitals as mercies, not income generators. Doctors used to signal their professionalism by wearing suits under their white coats, but now many don’t wear white coats at all and most of the doctors around here wear jeans to work. Only people who have little power are reminded to be “professional” by dressing in an expensive manner. But how can a doctor feel “professional” when patients come in waving print-outs of the latest research -- which the doctor has had no time to read. He can only recover his credibility by charging a lot of money. If the insurance company will pay that kind of money, he must know something, right? Sort of a technie.

Teachers on every level -- even as they have begun to do much better financially -- have taken huge losses in prestige. Religious leaders from Fundamentalist preachers to Catholic priests have become figures of mockery. Easy enough to lay this at the door of their own follies: in my generation it would have been inconceivable (!) for a female elementary teacher to become pregnant by her student. And public schools were temples in their own right that churches invaded at their peril. I suppose many will blame immigration which burdens schools with the duty of assimilating them. Maybe others will talk about the Sixties revolution valuing the questioning of authority or maybe that wicked Derrida crowd, who questions our very reality.

What I’d like to reflect on for a moment, is what all this feels like from the inside. My Protestant Irish grandfather desperately wanted to be a person respected in his community, for most of his life the rough little lumber town of Roseburg where he tried to be an orchardist but actually made his living doing construction. Because the little prune farm where he lived had been the home of the school clerk, who left the books behind in the house, my grandfather became the school clerk. Though he repeatedly ran for office, he never won because he constantly quarrelled with his “betters.” School clerk was about as far as his accomplishments went. His chief contribution was getting a new school house built -- the old one had blackberries growing through the walls.

He impressed on his oldest daughter, my mother, that same craving to “be somebody.” Her route to the goal was the PTA where her major contribution was the construction of an outdoor barbecue in the park adjacent to the school, plus a lot of event organizing. If one’s community is small, one needn’t build the pyramids. Vernon neighborhood in Portland was a small town embraced by what became a city. My mother became a school teacher and then the librarian at a small elementary school along the Columbia River. This was her microcosm and she ruled with vigor and laughter.

My mother expected me to become a high school English teacher. She never proposed that I become a college professor, which seemed to her quite exalted. When my first high school teaching job was on the Blackfeet Reservation, she thought that was a nice little adventure before real life began, rather than the lifetime preoccupation it has been. She never expected me to marry, so my relationship with a “famous sculptor” was a puzzle for her, esp. since he was 26 years older than me and a “cowboy” sculptor with a “museum.” She couldn’t figure out whether marrying someone older was a prestige thing to do -- hard to imagine me as “arm candy” -- or whether a cowboy sculptor or his museum were anything but mockeries of the real thing. If I’d been in Manhattan or Paris, she’d have had the literary references, but she’d never heard of Charlie Russell. I thought I was very clever to have succeeded through someone else, so I couldn’t be accused of showing off.

One of Bob’s central preoccupations was wringing respect out of his community for his family and respect out of his family for himself. It took me a long time to bring to consciousness that this was one of the ties between us. What I really wanted to do was to be a writer of significance and Bob promised to support me doing that once he was famous. Rich was not so important, beyond basic survival. We always recognized wealth as a mere instrument. In the meantime, the rest of society came more and more to believe that wealth was not just an indicator but a goal, the definition of success. Screw Hemingway or Rodin -- imitate Donald Trump or that, you know, that computer nerd with all the money.

When I became an animal control officer (a dog catcher) back in Portland, my mother, teachers and friends took this as a total betrayal of any kind of prestige and I rather did enjoy the in-your-face part of it. Iconoclasm came from my father’s side, the Scots prairie homesteaders and inventors. They were social progressives -- my father devoted himself to cooperatives. So I came to define animal control work in terms of reform and progress. (My mother stopped euphemizing that I “worked for the government” and bragged that I was the Margaret Sanger of dogs and cats.) That worked well. But it wasn’t enough.

I’d always been serious about religion (in general, not Christianity) and decided on ministry, at least in part because of the Pacific Northwest groups of Unitarian Universalist ministers at that time. They were all men: powerful, charismatic, driven, and as joined as Arthur’s round table. (Or so I thought.) My mother felt that I had exceeded myself -- she said to me, “Why can’t you just marry a nice minister?” The whole thing became moot when the UU ministry became a second career for middle-aged women. Exactly what I was trying to escape -- them, too, I guess. But in the process of transforming, the UU ministry went from high prestige to just another pink collar vocation.

So here I am back with writing, still believing in the creative as a blessing and a key to significance. Most of this little town would only be impressed if I made a lot of money. I myself was expecting to make at least a little money. It appears that I’ve reached this point just as book-writing has become a kind of sausage-making -- stuffing content into pre-determined categories (none of which my writing fits) and replacing all the wonderful charisma of British-style publishing with a kind of hip-hop blogging, blooking and podcasting that’s all in bits and caught on the fly instead of coherent, nicely bound, and perceptible on the shelf.

My mother (who began to suggest that maybe I ought to get into politics -- she still believed in Mark Hatfield and Neil Goldschmidt) has died and her estate let me buy this teensy crumbling house in this village on the edge of the reservation. Blackfeet crave prestige far more than I do, even their rebels and Neo-Traditionals. But I’ve begun to turn my own iconoclasm on status. What is being a big shot or a saint all about? Why should I want it? What good is it? Why make the sacrifices, carry the burdens, make the efforts, if you don’t get no respect? Where’s the non-monetary compensation? Why participate in that economy? Am I being brave and honest or just trailing along after the culture again?

By now I’m much less invested in prestige than in simple understanding.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Many of the orginal settlers of this area made their livings as dry-land farmers, growing barley and wheat. There was not water close enough to the surface to dig or drill to get irrigation or even household water in some places, so the farmers trucked water from Valier and drained it into cisterns buried near the house. No one wasted water.

When I moved into this house, built in the Thirties, one of its shortcomings was the lack of closets. It wasn’t about lack of water -- it was about lack of money for the amount of clothes that we all wear today. In the Thirties and earlier, one had a Sunday best, a Sunday second best (last year’s best), and everyday clothes -- maybe three sets of overalls and shirts or dresses with aprons. Even when I was a child in the Forties, the rule at our house was to wear everything at least three times before it was washed. As soon as one got home from school, one hung up one’s clothes straight and hanging free so they could be worn again. Towels were supposed to be dried on the rack and used again for a week. A woman who cleans houses in Valier now tells me that none of “her” families hang up towels or even put them in hampers -- they are simply left on the floor after each use until someone has time to run them through the wash. They are big fat towels -- doesn’t take many of them to make a load.

Valier was built on the premise of irrigation: that irrigation ditches would make this high prairie into a lush green Eden to rival Iowa. No one thought about the short cool growing season. The water did make some difference and the fact that the ditches were mostly dug by hand by reservation Indians working for a low wage helped their economy a little. Now the irrigation impoundment lake (“Lake Francis”) has become a great talking point for “development” for boats, fish, jetskis and the like. On the promise that the campground will be a big money maker, water and electricity have been installed. Also, a great many trees have been planted around town, all of which must be watered to survive.

A schism is developing over water. The town wells are low and not refilling. Global warming is permanently melting the mountain snowpack that feeds the underground aquifer. We’ve just been through five years or more of drought, but this year started off wet, so the newcomers think, “Ah, not to worry!”

Valier’s town water mains were installed decades ago when water was cheap -- and, anyway, a life entitlement! No one could even conceive of denying water to another living thing! Clean piped water was basic. No meters were installed. Now I pay the same amount for water as everyone else, though I have no washing machine, no dishwasher, no bathtub (I shower), no automatic sprinkling system, and no hot tub. Many neighbors have all those things plus teenagers -- multiple bathrooms, always wet with use.

Several new households have been added to town. Pinky, next door, used to say that if all the leaks in the town water system were fixed, we’d have twice the pressure. On a hot summer afternoon one can step into the shower and get a mere dribble of water, while all over town the sprinklers are spraying away, watering the grass with expensively chlorinated potable water. No one ever thinks of installing a second parallel irrigation system of NON-potable water just for yards -- they only want green lawn. Think of the cost of a new system!

The town water/sewer bill keeps going up -- it was thirty-something dollars a month when I came in 1999 but now it’s fifty something. There’s a major sewer project coming this summer. We may have to drill another well. Installing meters would cost money. I listen constantly for the subtle singing that means something in my cobbled-up system is leaking under my house. One would think plumbers would be easier to find in a place like this, but they are not. The last work under this house cost $400.

Some towns in this fix have fallen for the idea of the privatized water system -- a company will just take over the system, own the improvements, and sell the water to the town efficiently. Tired citizens won’t have to worry their pointy heads over the problems of meeting legal requirements and standards or being sued for lead in the water or whatever. Just let the professionals take over and enjoy the the benefits of expertise. Luckily, in Montana we have the perfect two-word phrase for warding off this idea: Montana Power!! Deregulating that formerly-dependable heating entity allowed it to redefine itself as a half-baked cyber-enterprise that sold off the power system to square-headed Dakotans who are still mopping up the floor with our bank accounts and refusing to sell it back to us so we can re-regulate it. (The cyber part went bankrupt.) Let the Californians laugh about ripping off Aunt Millie! The Dakotans are taking ample revenge for all those jokes Montanans tell about them!

In a world that doesn’t value society, that doesn’t see anything wrong with draining little villages of their few amenities, that only respects profit in the ten per cent range, someone somewhere this very minute is trying to figure out how to sell you air to breathe. Probably they’re just waiting until the regular air is so polluted you’ll have to buy air in bottles, like the water.

In the meantime the newcomers to Valier -- their bankrolls all safely protected somewhere else -- are trying to legislate us into “cuteness” with pretty yards and newly painted houses, never giving a thought to how much our water and sewer are costing. After all, these old women living on $400 Social Security weren’t clerks that waited on THEM when they were young. These old men with tiny incomes never pumped THEIR gas for them. How can they feel any obligation?

As we head towards four dollar gas, we are looking around at each other in Valier. We have one gas station, one grocery store, no laundromat, and the state just passed a law saying that your neighbor can’t pick up your prescription for you when they have an errand at the county seat. There’s no bus service, the “Senior Surrey” doesn’t come to Valier, and it’s thirty miles to the next settlement. We are in this together.

Someone who has decided to move out west has asked me by email if I had any advice. I do. Bring your own air and water.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"MONTANA 1911, A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet"

April 23, 2006, and it’s a cold day on the edge of snowing on the high Montana prairie. I sit in my little house, which is drafty because I’ve been de-winterizing and chilly because I’m resisting the expense of turning on the floor furnace. The reality of what I’m reading presses on me. The book is “Montana 1911,” a translation of a diary kept by “Willy” Uhlenbeck during the summer that her husband was studying the Blackfeet language.

She is a few miles north of here, on the reservation, and though it is August, it is cold, raining, with slippery gumbo underfoot. She and her husband are dependent on the Tatsey family for their food, transportation and shelter, which is to say meals of “cow tongue, rice and apricots,” transportation by rickety “buggy,” and a tent shelter that is easily penetrated by both wind and water. Their feet are constantly cold because of being wet, so they stay in the “camp bed” as much as possible. This was the life of a prestigious German scholar in those days and most of the time it was compensation enough to know they were doing important work.

To establish another relationship for me, 1911 was the year Thad Scriver went back to Quebec to marry Wessie, the girl from the prosperous farm next door. When she saw her new home, a small two-story house in Browning, she was in despair. Wessie was my mother-in-law -- hardly a scholar, but used to a comfortable life. She would have welcomed a long chat over tea with Willy Uhlenbeck, but neither knew of the existence of the other. The Uhlenbecks traded at the Sherburne Merc where they bought endless amounts of candy to smooth their social relationships with Blackfeet of all ages and types. Candy worked a bit better than whiskey, but -- looking back -- was not much better for the people. (“Candy is dandy but likker is quicker.”) The other remedy, for themselves, is hot tea. I make a cup of hot tea to share with them in absentia as I read.

This book, “Montana 1911,” is translated and edited by Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, who lives in Calgary. The first half book is Willy’s diary, the second part is stories collected by Uhlenbeck, and there are three other essays, by Inge Genee, Alice Kehoe (who was an anthropologist here in the Fifties) and Klaas van Berkel. In addition, there are two translated essays originally by J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong and many photos, mostly by the same. Though it might appear to be a technical, hard-to-read, textbook, it is in fact as engrossing and enlightening as McClintock’s “The Old North Trail,” another of the basic documentations of the Piegan in that time period. One is quickly drawn into this world proceding on two levels, one the most basic material culture of survival on the prairie just before WWI (tents, blankets, luggage, and tin basins) and the other a highly developed verbal and philosophical pursuit still not surpassed.

Willy speaks of ordinary things: which of the children seems shy, the lives of the horses, the hot afternoons when she washes out her handkerchiefs and finds that the first is dry before she has finished sudsing the last, the sheets of flowers and the glory of the sunsets over the mountains. She is very open to salvation by scenery. And, with a photographer’s eye, she describes the physical charms of the Indian people whom she often remarks are “soft” or “gentle,” with shining eyes. She criticizes fat, dirt and slyness. Things are “nice” when they are harmonious and pleasant. The book is dedicated to Annie Tatsey, who strove daily to make life “nice” for her family and the Uhlenbecks.

Uhlenbeck himself doesn’t appreciate scenery so much. His stomach hurts, his feet are freezing, he is happy only when he is working with his little file cards. The translator, who has done research on these people in Europe, assures us that the man is a neurotic, probably a latent homosexual, and unable to sustain an ordinary teaching schedule in a university. Yet he has made this major contribution, partly through the help of devoted university students. He loves the Indian children and brings them back to Willy in the tent for candy. (It is Willy who keeps him functioning. They have no children of their own, so the professor is her child.) The happiest times are when the adults come to sit at his feet while he reads back to them the Blackfeet stories he has transcribed in their language. They can understand what he says and are amazed. If there is a problem with teaching Blackfeet as a written language, it is that there is nothing to read in Blackfeet -- but here it is: the texts to work through in the same way Dutch Willy works through “Adam Bede” to learn English better.

Things were not going well that August. The weather was tough -- but the real problem was Tatsey, who had agreed to take them in and provide them with “teaching” all summer. Indians do not confront -- they evade. Tatsey is clearly going back on his deal but he is elusive, always with an excuse, an errand that has to be done. Maybe the problem, thinks Willy, is really that his oldest daughter is dying in one of the flimsy tents. She has tuberculosis “probably,” says the agency doctor who barely glances at her. In the same miserable tent, without even a camp bed, the 95-year-old grandmother is also dying. She says that she hopes the girl dies first so that there will be someone to greet her after she dies herself. Tatsey has no way to save them and Willy quickly exhausted her small store of medicines she keeps for Uhlenbeck.

Joseph Tatsey is listed in the invaluable record of the Blackfeet census of 1907-08 as half Blood Blackfeet and one-fourth Piegan Blackfeet. On his father’s side he is related to Culbertson’s wife, the formidable Natawista. He is a go-to guy, so he doesn’t just take care of his own family but is constantly asked to counsel and assist other Indian families with difficulties -- in those days everyone of every kind has difficulties, so he is busy. John Tatsey, who was the sole police in Heart Butte for many decades and wrote a column in the paper about the local reprobates, is remembered fondly. But today it is the “Tatsey-akis,” the Tatsey female descendants, who are go-to people. They know individuals, strategies, precedents, and how to use them. Many have achieved prominence in education. They are bold and competent women.

Another “big man” of the times was Joe Kipp, whose store and boarding house occasionally became refuges of the Uhlenbecks when Tatsey broke camp, went off with their household, and disappeared temporarily. They were in residence with Kipp when David Duvall, the resourceful informant for Clark Wissler who did much of the basic anthropological work on Blackfeet, became distraught over a quarrel with his wife and shot himself to death in another room. Willy tries to know as little as possible about it.

Mary Clearman Blew once said something in conversation almost off-hand, but it has remained with me. It was concerning the importance of “first generation” witnesses to history. The Uhlenbecks, Tatsey, Kipp, Duvall -- all of them were not just witnesses but participants -- they WERE history. There is nothing here about scalping or making slaves of captives. Nothing about sex or addiction. This is about rebuilding a society.

The Uhlenbecks didn’t come for Indian Days or to write popular fiction. They weren’t wealthy dilletantes. When one of the Tatsey children brought them some pancakes and bacon in their tent because they were too sick with one of the constant colds to go over to the Tatsey camp, Willy says they ate with their fingers because she had neither fork nor knife. Yet when individuals tried to buy candy from her she was careful to protest that she was not a mere tradesman. Her sweets were gifts, given according to whom she thought deserved them.

Probably I’ll write more about this book later, but it is clear that a real library about Blackfeet must include this important -- and newly accessible thanks to Mary Eggermont-Molenaar -- collection of stories. It is VERY expensive, but well worth the cost.

Montana 1911, A Professor and his Wife among the Blackfeet” edited by Mary Eggermont-Molenaar. 2005, University of Calgary Press, 2500 N.W. University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 2N4. ISBN 1-55238-114-5.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


The carillon at the Baptist church next door is set for new daily hymns every month. This month the 9AM hymn, which is the first of each day, bangs out “Christ the Lord is risen today” except today, Easter, because it’s Sunday. On Sunday the first tune is the call to worship at a quarter to ten. I was not there to see how many Easter bonnets arrived.

The snake, worldwide a strong symbol of renewal and rebirth because it sheds its skin, emerging all new and shiny, is never preached about on Easter in Christian churches because the beast has another role in Christian iconography. (Physicians use the serpent, but as a pair, which makes it different.)

This year shedding a skin is a good symbol for my own renewal because I’m going through my clothes, some of them bought in hopes of losing weight and never worn but now just fitting. But skin-shedding is also an unfitting icon because I’m going back to former clothes -- a snake can’t reassume old skins: it must get bigger and bigger.

My clothes were bought in different parts of what has been a compartmented life. I still have some rather splendid things from the Sixties, like a persimmon velvet jacket with jet embroidery. In the Seventies, as an animal control officer, I bought almost no clothes because I was in uniform. In the Eighties, at seminary, I wore flannel shirts and homemade denim pants. My advisor worried and worried that I wasn’t dressing like a professional. I still have the tweed suit that I bought at graduation, but not the high-heeled boots that went with it. He nearly swooned when he saw that outfit and complimented me so much that it was painfully obvious that he was trying to manipulate me into dressing that way all the time.

I still have my homemade “preaching dresses” meant to look good above the pulpit -- a bow under my chin -- but suggest a robe -- no waist at all. And my preaching blouses are still with me -- the best ones with a little ruffle around the neck and then that bow again. There’s an iconography to collars on religious leaders: the dog collar, the forked tab, the ruff. Mostly they refer to the period in which that kind of leader first emerged.

When I came back to the rez briefly to teach in Heart Butte, I mixed and matched what I had, since there was no money for new clothes, but I was too fat to go back to my preaching clothes. The kids scoffed and sneered, conditioned by television to believe -- like my seminary advisor -- that no white person dressed casually had any value. They themselves wore black sweats. Hoods up. Pulled down over the face.

Back in Portland in my clerical/secretarial job, I was behind the scenes rather than at the counter and could be relaxed. Shirts of all sorts -- never tucked in -- over gaudy skirts. I watched for men’s tuxedo shirts on sale. My attention was on earrings -- real pendant d’orielles -- which I made from beads that I bought from the many bead shops on lunch hour. Now I rarely wear them, forsaking their gypsy attitude for practical gold hoops. Several of those skirts have been converted to sofa pillow covers.

All through every stage my wristwatch has been a large men’s leather strap quartz, good for seeing at a glance while I drove the animal control truck, while I prowled the stacks at Regenstein, while I preached or counseled, while I was packed onto a Portland bus. Now I only wear it if I’m shopping. My wardrobe revolves around fleece shirts, heavy sweatpants and woolly nightgowns.

That’s the way it goes with renaissance, self re-invention, new skins. Throw some things away -- keep others. Adapt to the now. But I was a costumer for a while way back there -- I’m well aware that clothes have a playful aspect -- deception -- and that they can point to the future.

I’ve been very intrigued by the new Pope’s preoccupation with acquiring new and more splendid robes. Even others have remarked at his splendid red kid Gucci loafers. Red shoes, eh? Not the shoes of a fisherman. What if the next loafers are snakeskin?

What does an author wear for readings? Should I show up all in black like a gunslinger? Or denim -- specially tailored -- like Paul Dyck, the artist? I think, depending on income, I’ll incline towards Coldwater Creek and Silhouettes. Both are catalog stores -- that’s what we know about here. Those outfits will be a balancing act between disclosure and disguise. There is an audience to please, but down inside me is an egg that will hatch the next book, an Easter egg, if you like. Some snakes do lay eggs, you know.

I have a pair of red high heels. Haven't tried them on. What if they fit?

Friday, April 14, 2006


Today is Good Friday, in the Christian tradition the day that Jesus was crucified and became “the Christ,” the entity sent to redeem all good Christians. In Portland the downtown ministers used to stage an “endarkenment ceremony,” meant to contrast with “enlightenment” which would come at dawn on the third day. The ceremony was Bible readings about the Crucifixion with each of the ministers taking one of Jesus “last words.” A man with a particuarly rich and thrilling voice took the last sentence: “It is done.” All this over a PA system in an ornate old church where the sanctuary had no windows, so that as each sentence was spoken, more lights were turned out until it was totally dark.

Ministers joke about religion a lot and Unitarian Universalist ministers more than most, though it’s inconvenient when some of the ministers are female or black or handicapped, since most jokes everywhere are about what makes us nervous or troubled. Like sex, death, power. Peter Raible of Seattle was always particularly sharp at pointing out examples of our Endarkenment. He’d have had a field day with the present US administration.

But the best symbols come out of truths and in these cyclical ceremonies of seasonal change, they are often weather related. Certainly right here and now our skies are dark with purple cloud, but the rain from them is hopefully calling out what is underground. The bulbs, which have batteries stored from last fall, are pushing up out of the dark soil.

I always enjoyed going to that primal layer when I preached my Easter sermon, which isn’t easy among UU’s who don’t recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. I never have had patience for smarmy pastel bunnies and chicks. (Anyway, a friend reports that her neighborhood bunny ate all her crocus and the chicks are being tested for bird flu -- talk about endarkenment!) So one year I preached about King Potato. Both Old Joe Campbell (no editor will ever let me call him that, so I’ll say it here) and Mircea Eliade pointed out that the Jesus story comes out of Egyptian mythology in which Osiris is cut up and dispersed as an act of renewal. His sister/wife was dedicated to finding and reassembling him, with the final lost piece being his penis, which was hidden in a pillar. The experts say that this is an interweaving of very early agriculture (tubers had to be cut up and buried in order to start a new plant) with human renewal. (The Egyptians couldn’t have used actual potatoes since that’s an American plant.)

This makes no sense unless you can accept ideas like the one in the recently discussed (it’s been known for quite a while) Gospel of Judas, which insists that someone had to betray Jesus (cut him up) so that he could rise from the dead -- and Judas was the guy whom Jesus specifically asked to do this very difficult thing. (Camille Paglia, who must have thought she was studying obscure and arcane subject matter, has been interviewed on the radio every day this week.)

Every day the newspaper reports another case where someone freaks out and kills his/her immediate family -- even mothers, even ministers’ wives. Is this because their situation has become so barren and corrupt that the ancient and primitive impulse to cut everything up in order to cause a renewal is unleashed by desperation? And was it provoked because the strangehold of the powerful became so choking and anguished?

We’d like to think we’re more sophisticated than that. We hope to create refuges and safety nets and escape valves. But consider Darfur, which no one wants to do. A place where children are taught to chop off arms, feet, lips. How dark does it have to get? Are these family massacres just little Darfur outbursts that are normally suppressed or disabled or transformed?

The human unconscious is huge, bigger than we ever suspected -- even Freud. All those tiny structures in the brain, especially the ones behind the forehead that make us feel for each other and willing to cooperate, are as unconscious as the structures that keep our hearts beating and our lungs breathing. We know how to implant a little machine to keep the heart in rhythm, but there is no machine that can replace the “mirroring” cells, so vulnerable just behind the eggshell of bone in front where skulls are often hit. The idea that the darkness in our heads contains submerged goodness is new.

The growing directions for peonies -- which which I am generously endowed, thanks to previous gardeners -- say that they must go through a really cold winter in order to grow properly in the spring. Only an old-fashioned rose has the lush, almost blowsy, full and pink ruffling of a peony. It’s a far more glorious bloom than the lily we usually associate with Easter. In fact, it’s pastel, sentimental, and appealing as a chick or Easter egg. I may be converted to the idea of the nearly sexual excess of the peony as a symbol of resurrection, rebirth, renewal, return to enlightenment. The “Easter Peony.”

The moon is full right now. According to the radio, which did a little story on names of moons, this is the Christian “Pasque Moon.” But in some culture or other it is called the “pink moon.” (I tried to find this on the NPR website but the issue is confused by a song with that name.) The “pink” moon is called that because so many pink things are in bloom -- cherry blossom country, I guess. A peony moon is not here, not yet. Just the first sharp tips of the plants are showing, more maroon than pink. But any moon would not be so glorious if it weren’t floating in a dark sky.

When I explored this stuff, members of my congregations often said afterward, "I didn't understand one damn thing you said!" Well, that's why they call them Mysteries. Unsolvable but eminently ponderable.

Monday, April 10, 2006


When Glacier National Park was bought from the Amskapi Pikuni division of the Blackfoot Nation, three small tourist towns formed on the boundary. From north to south were Babb at the north end of St. Mary’s Lake, then St. Mary at the south end, and -- across Looking Glass pass -- East Glacier where Highway 2 leaves the reservation, heading west. East is quite distinct from the others in terms of who lives there, style, and so on. For one thing, the road from Babb to St. Mary, which once appeared to be solid forest, has been claimed by many small, not particularly upscale, allotment holders because global warming means they are not sealed in all winter. In East Glacier growth has been around the edges of town and has been summer recreation type.

I did some phoning last night because Scriver Wife Number Two, Jeanette Caoutte Scriver Chase, had died in Grants Pass, Oregon, in a nursing home at an advanced age and, since I couldn’t get the Browning paper to print an obituary, I needed to tell her friends. (In her eighties my mother used to froth and foam about her old friends disappearing without a trace -- no one bothering to let her know.) The young ones around here don’t remember Jeanette -- heck, they don’t even remember ME! (Third wife.) The youngest don’t remember Bob, who died in 1999.

Two of Jeanette’s good friends lived in the little resort towns. In East Glacier Doris Sherburne lives with her son and runs one of the better motels, where their clientele has returned every summer for many years. They live well -- they have the inland craving for shellfish so often eat bouillabase, accompanied by the proper wine on an elegantly appointed table. Sherburne is the name of one of the original white settlers. In fact, the patriarch hired Thad Scriver, Bob’s father, to come to Browning to work in his mercantile store in 1903 and supported Thad when he started the Browning Merc. One of his sons is the favorite “bad guy” on the lips of those who pursue reservation corruption. Doris married a different branch. I taught school with her son, Terry, who was hired to teach French and also taught Blackfeet (with the help of Katharine Grant) in one of the more sophisticated early attempts (they had headphone booths).

East Glacier is a railroad town -- in fact, in the early days (Fifties and Sixties) -- the rivalry between one side of the railroad and the other side was so strong that there had to be two grocery stores and in January snowdrifts emotions flared so high that people ran off with other people’s spouses or set fire to each other’s houses. The main Glacier Park offices are in West Glacier (the other side of the Rockies) but there is a significant ranger presence in East. The major railroad hotel is here, so in summer the place is overrun with earnest kids from Minneapolis -- or used to be. Now that the Great Northern has become the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, the summer help is much more diverse and much more expectant of adventures. The historic Clarke legacy is close to the surface here, since this is where their allotment was (they sold the land for the Big Hotel) and where they welcomed their high level friends. (Famous artists and movie stars like Clark Gable.) Today’s Clarke Art Gallery is run by his daughter across the street from the Sherburne’s motel.

Doris hires locals for her motel help and is inventive enough to have devised teams for room cleaning and set-up so the check-out turnover goes more quickly. Two women invade each room as it’s emptied and go through a prescribed routine of scrubbing, changing sheets, and so on. They are allowed to keep the TV on and follow the soaps as they go. They were the first in town to fold the ends of the toilet paper rolls into little V’s.

Everyone in East Glacier is a little careful about bears, which often come into town. In fact, another next-generation Sherburne daughter-in-law was on the phone when her small daughter came to tell her there was a bear on the roof. She didn’t believe it until she heard a lot of scrambling up there. Now her real estate business is called “Bear On the Roof.” Google it -- you’ll see.

St. Mary is also close enough to the Park to see an occasional bear. The major hotel in this town is Hugh Black’s. That’s not its name and Hugh has been gone for decades, but locals still call it that. One of the sons built a new detached multi-storied wing with family money, but when it came time to divide the inheritance, some family members demanded a larger share than he felt he deserved, since he had developed the idea. Legal measures deadlocked, so this son went into the building and stripped it: doorknobs, hatracks, toilet seats, wall-heaters -- all came out and were sold.

Ruth Johnson, Jeanette's friend, and her family have developed a different sort of presence based on a cafe and campground. She started the business in a little cabin on the highway and the family lived in a tent behind, alongside the supplies. If intruders got into the supplies, looking for booze but not finding any in this Methodist establishment, Ruth dealt with them harshly. I don’t mean a tongue lashing. Yet Ruth is probably the most trusted confidante of cowboys and ranchers up that way. I think they see her as an equal. Nowadays the family lives up the hill from the road but their well is just down from the Black dump, which is full of paint and preservative residue. They have been plagued by cancer.

The Johnsons have been the source of many teachers and administrators for the Browning schools. Ruth likes genealogy and has been quick to claim her heritage, which goes back to the Mayflower. To her, in spite of her family being mixed with Blackfeet, the Mayflower was the beginning of America.

sheltered no friend of Jeanette’s that I could think of. The tourist “industry” people there are a generation older than the ones in St. Marys or East Glacier. Thronson’s tried homesteading in the days when the new railroad was pulling in dreamers all along the Highline. When they went bust -- like everyone else -- they came to the Park and built small log cabins for tourists -- in those days a hardy bunch who wore jodphurs and laced boots to their knees. Every morning Thronsons carried over a bucket of water and armload of wood to each cabin. The sheets were washed by hand and ironed with the kind of iron one warms on the woodstove, so I don’t think they were changed daily. The log cabins are still there though not in use since the newer motel was built, the store is still there, and the Thronson’s granddaughter, who must be approaching fifty? by now, bought the Bob Scriver cabin which was halfway between St. Mary’s and Babb, about where the Winold Reiss art school was in the Twenties. Jeanette lived in that cabin and ran a little trinket shop in St. Mary to help finance the building of the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife, now gone.

These towns at the interface between GNP and the reservation have always been “white” towns, but that’s changing. They’ve always been identified with the town's major families, but that’s changing, too. The feuds that used to be so bitter have been replaced by drug-fueled rages.

Jeanette’s friends. If you were casting them with movie stars, they’d be Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Ruth Roman. Women of substance and opinion. They got things done. In old age they are still formidable, and so was Jeanette, right up to the last.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


My income puts me four dollars over the poverty line, but this is a choice -- as school teachers these days say in a blaming voice as though that explained everything. I knew I would never get even the first book written unless I escaped Portland and deadhead salary work. I saw poverty as a kind of freedom, a purity, a simplification. So I retired a little too soon.

The picture in my head that I went towards was basically a cabin. Many times in my life I’ve moved to a new place by putting all my belongings in storage, driving ahead in my small van with only the basics (computer, mattress, folding table and chair, stack of books, fork and frying pan) to rent a marginal studio apartment and live in it, basically camping, until I’d made enough money to fly back, rent a moving van, and bring the rest. Though I was always happy to see my things again, I also cherished the month or so when the space was empty of all but light and appliances.

This little 800 square foot house seemed enormous at first, but filled up fast, partly because I had some of my mother’s furniture with me. But also because as soon as I had enough bookcases to shelve all the books and enough filing cabinets to sort out my boxes, they exploded to fill the rooms. This kept me from feeling impoverished even though I was still feeding myself the same way I fed the cats: open a can, dump it in a bowl, heat it in the tiny old microwave and eat. It was a chop-wood-carry-water life until I began to sink under undiagnosed diabetes, which I thought was just aging. Then I began to push aside the papers, neglect the yard, and nap with the cats. Now that I’m diagnosed, I’m rich in energy again, but there will be no more simple meals and fingersticks are part of what has to be a regular discipline.

I begin to understand that the world sees diabetes -- like everything else -- as a marketing opportunity. Even if I don’t need meds, I still need a doctor and the gas to go see her, a little machine and the supplies for it. I need advice and recipes and more access to better food. And my yard -- according to the neighbors -- needs a power-mower, plants, etc. George W. Bush wants me insured for drugs. I'm a pass-through for pharmaceutical profiteering.

The first book is written and sold but it turns out there will be no money for a year and then it will be a modest amount. The fact is that our culture no longer values writing. Our media has gone digital video and may not return. Everyone writes -- not very well -- but the publishing houses have crashed. Indeed, the newspapers and magazines are crashing. Writers are as unemployed as Detroit assembly line workers. Rolling poverty.

All this is expectable and rational to some degree. I didn’t expect this much inflation this fast (what cost $30 when I came in 1999 is now $50) and I didn’t expect this town to change. Our first Hummer is now parked in front of the post office every morning -- the driver has bought the Stone School Bed & Breakfast (a conversion of the first public school in Valier) and expects to live “a spiritual life” there with her two golden labs. (It has a quite remarkable purple chandelier as well as a view of our nearly dried-up lake.) The previous big city import insisted that we become a “tree city,” create a pocket park on the highway, and install water hookups for the campground -- even though there is not enough water in the town wells to water our little vegetable patches. My neighbors across the street -- the ones who complain about my yard -- have three bathrooms, a hot tub, a dishwasher, a laundry (2 kids, a LOT of washing), and underground automatic watering. I have one bathroom, no dish or clothes washer, no hot tub (or bathtub, since I installed a shower), one hose with a sprinkler on the end. There are no meters in town so we pay the same flat rate for water. Somehow there are a lot of people trying to force their lifestyle onto me -- shifting their financial burden first.

But I can suck it up, be a bit of a martyr, and consider myself a role model. I came expecting to stay maybe twenty years: I’ve been here seven years now and am mostly achieving what I set out to do. People in Valier never expected me to stay more than a couple of years and find it positive, if surprising, that I’m still here. The people who count cut me a little slack.

Social pressure in the United States is something else. Christian America has always been of the opinion (secretly or not) that a person who is not prosperous is not favored by God. Something must be wrong with them, whether sin, deformation, or laziness. This small town has its share of the alcoholic, the maimed, the never-quite-right, the trauma-survivors. The ones who have money are tolerated. The ones who get “big checks from the government for doing nothing” are highly resented, even by their own relatives. We hate the poor, as New Orleans demonstrated.

But now we’re moving beyond that. Mitt Romney in Massachusetts wants to require people to buy health insurance by law, punishing anyone who fails to do so with fines, and imposing health insurance on them by withholding the fees from their wages or taxes. In Montana we already have required auto insurance.

There are two forces entwined: one is the enumerating and classifying of everyone, a syndrome brought on computers IMHO. The government wants to number the hairs on your head -- all the while keeping their own heads covered with secrecy. The second force is redefining what might be simple incompetence or bad luck into a defiance of “God Government” and criminalizing it. We’re back to debtor’s prison. Can systematic weeding-out of “cripples” be far behind? Why wait for them to die of poverty, when they can just be neatly shot?

Moving here from Portland probably did as much or more to restore me than the diabetes diagnosis. Not only was the atmosphere there full of strange molecular substances. (I’m convinced the Portlandia Building is a “sick” building contaminated with fungus, etc., even while putting aside the day that bus exhaust so invaded the inadequate ventilation system that one entire floor began to vomit and was sent home.) In addition there was crime everywhere: in my apartment a cocaine dealer across the hall, a cocaine dealer who moved in with the woman who lived directly under me, cars stolen from the curb under my window or sometimes just their wheels, rapists in the news everyday -- some of them people we knew. Not the victims, the rapists.

Paranoia put all our cortisol levels as high as they would be if we’d been in a car wreck. Some people could not function without tranquilizers. Every clerk in the Permit Center was on mood elevators. There was random shooting on the streets, even in daytime, and constant bomb threats. Some guy flipped out and held hostage a high-rise building near us. It contained a TV station which could not broadcast what was happening for fear of tipping off the invader about what the cops were doing. This was in Portland, considered an idyllic green place to live.

It was like coming into an inheritance to return to this dry, windy, pop. 300 village. Now I’m wealthy in time, materials, ideas, security, sunlight... But that only increases the necessity of simplification, discipline, awareness. While this lasts. Across the street the little house of one of my neighbors has been emptied over the past week or so. She is in a nursing home. The very large family cleared out what they wanted, then held a “garage” sale. We wait to see who buys the little house. It is not grand enough to attract a Hummer driver, thank... um... Buddha.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Robert Parker Lyrics - Barefootin Lyrics

Everybody get on your feet,
You make me nervous when you in your seat
Take off your shoes and pat your feet,
We're doin a dance that can't be beat
We're barefootin', We're barefootin',
We're barefootin', We're barefootin',

Went to a party the other night,
Long Tall Sally was out of sight
Threw way her wig, and her high sneakers too,
She was doin a dance without any shoes
She was barefootin', She was barefootin',
She was barefootin', She was barefootin',

Hey little gal with the red dress on,
I bet you can barefoot all night long
Take off your shoes and throw them away,
Come back and get them another day
We're barefootin', We're barefootin',
We're barefootin', We're barefootin',

Lil John Henry he said to Sue,
If I was barefootin' would you barefoot too
Sue told John, "I'm thirty two,
I was barefootin ever since I was two
They was barefootin', they was barefootin'
They was barefootin'', we barefootin'
We barefootin' we barefootin'
We barefootin' we barefootin'
We barefootin' we barefootin'
We don't have no shoes on

This lovely little song came on the radio a week or so ago and it’s been floating around in my head ever since. The central idea is going to a dance, getting into the mood, and kicking off one’s shoes to do a little rhythmic movin’ in one’s bare feet. Be natural, get with the scene, connect to that cool floor.

I’ve always loved going barefoot. In the days back in Portland when I walked home from school on hot pavement, my shoes came off as soon as I got to our lawn. My mother always claimed I learned this trick in California when we went to visit my father’s brother and his family. But then, my father always sang to my mother (who was named Lucy), “Lucy, put your shoes on -- you’re in town now.”

Barefoot: sensuous and free, dancing in California, hick behavior of a country girl, and more. My brother once said, when we were discussing insurance in our late middle-age, “I’m walking barefoot though the world.” He meant this to mean that since he had no insurance there was nothing to shield him from injury or from the costs associated. Therefore, he must be alert to avoid broken glass, rusty nails and scorpions, but he seemed to be confident he could do that. (In reality neither of my brothers was fond of going barefoot.) A certain amount of fatalism here.

Once at a party or something, a handsome young man remarked, “I could never make love to an older woman because their feet are so ugly.” I knew what he meant: feet tortured into bunions and snaggly toes because of being crammed into small high-heeled shoes for so many years that they can NOT go barefooted -- their Achilles’ tendons have shortened to fit high heels and stretching them enough to keep heels on the ground is painful. I guess that young man would have to make love to older women who keep their Manolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos on while in the act. Over the years I’d look at my feet and wonder if they were yet ugly enough to prevent a young man from devoting time to me.

I took pride in my high arches, though they often made shoes uncomfortable and then suddenly in my late fifties, I began to have plantar fascitis, which is an inflammation of the sheet of tissue over the bottom of the foot. What was tricky about it was that it turned out to be due to torn cartilage in my knee, which was allowing my ankle to twist. Even before that I’d gone to what I once scorned as “old lady shoes,” meaning something like orthopedic sandals with cushy soles. All my life I’ve walked a lot and in Saskatoon I used to walk across the bridge to downtown -- past a shoestore. The first cushy flat, wide sandals were English. They were still not the plain brown Oxfords I was forced to wear as a child, nor the slightly high-heeled lace-up shoes of my grandmother, which made her swollen ankles bulge over the top. Anyway, nowadays old ladies wear athletic sneakers. Or as they say in England and Saskatoon, “trainers.”

But now I’m having to face a new issue. One of the great preoccupations of people who advise diabetics is the dire warning that if they don’t do the right thing, they will have their feet amputated. I know this is the truth -- after all, I know several people who HAVE lost their feet. But it always makes me think of that terrible Hans Anderson fairy tale (immortalized in the movie, “The Red Shoes”) about putting on shoes that dance, dance, dance, obsessively until the wearer is exhausted and can only be released by chopping her feet off. (They cheated in the movie -- in the story the feet go dancing off in the shoes, but in the movie the shoe-maker takes them off dead Moira Shearer’s feet and mimes them through her steps.) It’s a curse, a punishment for pride and obstinacy.

The health care people say that every night one must wash one’s feet carefully with warm water -- NOT soak them, which I would like to do -- and inspect for small wounds. Any break in the skin must be sterilized and covered with a bandage. And one must wear “cushy” socks. NOT darned socks.

All my socks are darned. Now that I’m old and my circulation isn’t so good (oh, oh) I’ve compromised with life enough to wear socks, but I wear them in slippers and clogs and sometimes just on the floor -- “sock-footin’” -- so they get holes. I’m careful when I darn -- I learned in 4-H sewing how to diligently weave in and out. (I used to know a guy who just ran a thread around the perimeter of the hole and pulled, cinching up a drawstring.)

When I was a young adult in Browning, there was a cabin across the street from the museum -- typical Sixties Moccasin Flats poverty home. I stopped in the door on some errand once. The entire furnishings were a refrigerator with a TV on top and a broken-down ancient sofa. The little boy in that house started out every morning in socks without shoes and by sundown he was only wearing sock cuffs. Everything else had worn away. I don’t know who provided all those socks but no shoes.

Oh, there’s lots more to think about. Army socks, for instance. Luxury socks. Novelty socks with individual toes. My policy is to buy maybe 20 pairs, all exactly the same. That way when one goes missing, it’s not a catastrophe. Once I was in the laundromat where a lady had done that: her socks were from Hanes with pink toes and heels. She had rolled them up in pairs and they looked like little pink bunnies tumbling around the folding table.

The hardest part of the foot care regime is clipping toenails. I’ve almost lost enough weight to get at the right foot, but I still can’t quite get a good grip on the left foot. What does it mean? Am I losing more weight on one side? Are there more organs on one side? What’s in there on the left side anyway? This is the part where you need a foot buddy -- both to swap foot care and to provide reassurances.

To bring this full circle, let me say that I’ve lost about as much weight as I can by merely dieting. But spring in Montana means that it’s not always good enough weather to walk far enough to wear off pounds. So my solution is to play music and do a little “bare-footin’.” I wouldn’t want to dance in public, but here on my rugs (I love my rugs, soft patterns of pale blue and gold and russet!) I can cut loose as much as I like. And since I’m not wearing red shoes, I don’t have to worry about my feet waltzing off without me.