Wednesday, May 31, 2006


The weather weaver here on the high prairie has at hand a warp from the West Coast and a weft from Alaska and the Arctic. The shuttle is the jet stream. We’ve just experienced a several-day spate of cold rain that usually hits about now -- after a couple of weeks of summer weather in May while there are still classes -- just as the school kids get out. This is about the time that the major flood of 1964 hit here, with results like a mini-version of New Orleans. That is, three poorly maintained federal dams broke, sweeping down the rivers, killing more than thirty, and changing the hamlet of Heart Butte forever. (It was destroyed, rebuilt, connected to a paved road, and expanded into a housing project.)

I think what really happens annually is that the jet stream moves sideways from south to north until it reaches its summer location in Canada and when it moves over us, it brings along the coast weather but breaks up whatever inland high rests here. A commercial pilot who flies east/west would know, since they often piggy-back on that jet stream.

About this time of year in 1971, newly divorced, I moved from the little ranch on Two Medicine where I’d wintered, up to the resort town of East Glacier at the mouth of Marias Pass. A hulk of a two-story yellow house (much better than usual on the reservation) had stood empty there for several years and I proposed to rent it for $75. Further, the rent was not to be paid to the owner in money but in receipts equivalent to materials as I made repairs. My labor was free. In fact, it was therapeutic. My landlady (who now lives across the alley from me here in Valier) had grown up there and said she always liked the house because when the snow got so deep that you couldn’t see out the first floor, you could always go upstairs.

It was technically summer vacation. Nothing was hooked up except electricity and water. The wall behind the kitchen sink had a hole burned in it from a fire that started from an effort to thaw the pipes in winter, so my first chore was patching that and installing a new window. There were stovepipe chimneys so I got a little tin stove and I hooked up the old gas stove that had been there. That was enough heat to get me through the first fall, though I often read with my feet in the oven to keep them warm. Just before the first major blizzard hit, Joe Evans drove up from Browning to install a wall heater that equalled one month’s rent receipts.

But the first part of the summer was occupied with replacing the glass broken out of every window and with hardcore scrubbing. The house had been occupied by squatters. In the kitchen the floor was saturated with beer and grease, which fed an amazing assortment of fungus and mold. I pulled up four separate layers of ancient linoleum and spent a day searching out and lifting the tiny sharp tacks that had anchored them.

The most dubious problem was something nasty on the walls that some people claimed was human excrement. A bit of investigation showed me it was actually commodity peanut butter. A friend walked over to see how I was doing. She and her husband, a fellow teacher, were renovating an old mercantile store -- much older and mercifully pre-cleaned since an old lady had lived there with a small flock of chickens -- indoors. They had tools, skills and double the person-power of my project, so their achievements were far more definitive and impressive. She was a real cleaning demon, in contrast to my tolerance of anything not contagious or moving.

And she really wanted to see this “excrement” on my walls. While she peered at it, squawking that I might die of some terrible disease, I walked over and swiped a finger through the stuff. “I’m not afraid of shit!” I declared, and put my finger in my mouth. I thought she might faint. It was great.

Luckily, she wasn’t there when I opened an old styrofoam cooler that had been on a high shelf in the shed. You know the phrase, “great gray-green greasy gopher guts?” That’s what was in there -- except that it had deteriorated into goo. I smelled it for days afterwards even though I’d immediately resealed it and taken it out to the dump. (This was in the days that it was a real dump where we all went on Sunday morning and swapped discards, sometimes coming back with more than we took out.)

Through most of that June I kept warm through muscle power -- scrubbing, scraping, tugging. But the jet stream was bringing water for the grass and sometimes I just got too chilled and tired to keep it up. That’s when I resorted to the Big Hotel.

The big East Glacier Hotel is one of those railroad hotels, built in Adirondack Style but on a scale far beyond any Eastern lodge. Since the train went through at the foot of the ridge on which it was built, huge Douglas fir logs were brought in to create a three-story central atrium with rooms all around balcony hallways. Of course there were huge fireplaces with crackling logs, as well as a window-lined hallway supplied with writing desks. I spent my afternoons there, watching tourists indignantly shaking off rain.

On the first few mornings in my new house I woke up with small red itchy bites. The second time this happened, I quickly snatched my bedding off, threw it on the floor and jumped on it. Out ran a cluster of small black predatory spiders, the kind that jump and bite rather than make webs. I overcame my fear of poisons enough to insect-proof the room and ran the bedding through the village laundromat. No more problem.

Except that I kept dreaming that a grizzly was trying to break in. This was not entirely unwarranted, since bears walk through East Glacier all the time. In fact, the citizens have learned that it’s best not to have a leash law because big dogs help discourage bears, besides keeping the stray cows out of your petunias. In the end I realized that the Palomino Bar cleaned up about 3AM and came out to dump the empty bottles in a great crashing and splintering. That’s what my sleeping mind made into a grizzly attack.

On the other hand, I was lying in bed one morning contemplating a cluster of really big nails driven above my bed and reflecting on how heavy a picture must have been hung there. Maybe a mirror? Then it dawned on me. One of the last legitimate occupants of the house had been Richard Little Dog and family. He was the man who had transferred his Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle to Bob and I. This was where the Bundle had hung when he lived here. Technically, I was still a Keeper, since a white man’s divorce had no relevance to ancient tribal customs and Bob had no intention of transferring it to anyone else.

I could not be sleeping in a safer place. Let it rain and blow and storm and snow. All the troubles were so much peanut butter. Rain for the grass. Last night I thought about all this as I took my evening walk under a clearing sky. The town was quiet as the surrounding prairie, peaceful quiet -- safe quiet.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Ernie Kraft

Bringing in the small bunch at Moiese Bison Range -- Bob on the far left.

Sometimes I feel a little lonely, pegging away at my first books, trying to recapture things that happened forty years ago. But now that’s been fixed. Ernie Kraft has finished and published the book about the National Bison Range at Moiese that he was working on when Bob and I rode in the roundup back in the Sixties. Like me, it took retirement to provide the time and impetus, but unlike me, he spent more than thirty years in that one job, understanding it more deeply every day, missing the “giants” who -- since they were older -- have disappeared, and loving it with his whole heart. It’s not just that the older men are missing now, it’s that the whole concept of the range as it was then has changed.

First of all, the range is semi-woven into the history of the Salish-Kootenay-Flathead tribes in the valley so that political influence has complicated everything. Second, genetics has also been politicized so that a certain kind of person (who would emphatically reject any hint of human racism) feels that “cow genes” contaminate bison and that any hint of this (which is pretty inevitable since cattle and bison herds mingled on the open prairie for a long time) makes a bison worthless.

The third element is from government bureaucracy which assigned a series of “scientific” managers who knew nothing about bison (often they came from waterfowl refuges) and worried too much about lawsuits and accidents -- seriously muting the relationship between the range and its neighbors, which turned out to be bad for politics. Probably much worse than the occasional casualty. Anyway, the highest casualty rate appears to come from the replacement of horses with all-terrain vehicles highly unsuited to a place in the foothills where the rocks are sharp enough to slash tires and a job where survival means turning faster than a bison, which a horse can think quickly enough to do.

Ernie was hired in 1955 for $1.09 an hour. The foreman believed in horseback management but Ernie’s first test was a pick-and-shovel job installing a four-foot-tall culvert. He passed.

The 18,541 acre Bison Range is on the wrong side of the Rockies from the original range, but was bought from the Flathead, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille who had originally crossed the mountains to hunt bison on the prairie. The first dozens of animals came mostly came from the Conrad Estate in Kalispell. That Conrad was a brother to the Conrad for whom my Pondera County Seat was named -- a lot of their money came from whiskey-running on the Whoop-Up Trail which runs just east and north of here. The Conrad who stayed on this side never had so elaborate a lifestyle as the Conrad who settled in Kalispell. The latter’s mansion appears in the movies now and then, for instance “Heaven’s Gate.”

Ernie says “a little girl” made a speech to him about the genetics of the herd -- which now numbers in the hundreds -- and did a sample blood draw which did reveal a few animals with cow genes. At the next roundup they were exterminated. You can do that when you have every animal recorded and ear-tagged. Ernie ponders this and many other things. His way of handling the Indian questions was simply to end the book in 1990, rather in the way the most dangerous old bulls were simply left in their coulees during the roundup.

Cy Young, Babe May, Grant Hogge, and other truly impressive and competent men worked with Ernie. When occasional guests rode they included braggarts, knotheads, and other incompetents, including myself. Riding over there was probably the high point of Bob Scriver’s exciting life -- and his horse’s life, too. When we got close to the range, Gunsmoke would begin to dance in the back of the pickup, which was hard on the driver’s ability to steer.

C.J. Henry was the enlightened and far-sighted manager who allowed us to ride, because he understood that artists and writers could make the Bison Range intelligible to the country. Peter Matthiessen was there, early on. C.J. allowed Bob to come to the annual slaughter, which meant he could measure and really study the “hands-on” anatomy of several sizes and ages of animals. Ernie brought his own pencil-and-paper and also recorded the measurements, which means that his own sculpture has that same authentic quality. He sells his own bronzes from his home in Charlo.

There’s a good interview with Ernie at

If you had a transcript of our phone conversation after I found this article, it wouldn’t be easy to read because there were so many things we could just remind each other about without having to tell the story. Like the Texan who turned out to be wearing a toupee and got drunk enough to put it on backwards. Or the pet baby bison and baby antelope that grew up together -- don’t know what that did to their self-images.

Ernie knows a lot of stories he said he didn’t dare put in the book. For instance, he asked if I were the woman rider some blowhard had forgotten about in the buckhouse when the fellow began telling the “boys” in great detail about how he repeatedly made love to Marilyn Monroe. The woman rider was in an upper bunk and lying flat, so he couldn’t see her until she sat up. That sorta cut his story short. I think the woman was probably Nancy McLaughlin, Ace Powell’s wife, and, if so, she was more amused than shocked.

On the Western History listserv there is an argument at the moment about how accurate the cable series “Deadwood” is. The Romantics are defending the “f” word and enthralled by the transgressive Alpha male in town. I think probably “Deadwood” is about as accurate as that bunkhouse braggart’s stories about Marilyn Monroe and about as meaningful.

I’d rather read “Untold Stories of Bison Range Trails” by Ernie Kraft. It oughta be showing up at Barnes & Noble any day now. About twenty bucks with about sixty photos, many historical. It’s not just stories about exploits, but also some very careful in-depth research. You’ll miss the best part, which is Ernie himself: open-hearted, thoughtful, polite without being prudish, loving and competent.

I'm not the sole survivor after all.

Friday, May 26, 2006


At first the horseback Indian thought that the patch of yellow on the prairie was just flowers, but it wasn’t quite the right season for that size and color of flowers, so he went a little closer in order to investigate -- though not close enough for the patch to be dangerous. It was some kind of garment. Sprawled. No sign of a person. Had it been discarded? Was it a trap?

He got off the horse and let it graze while he hunkered on his heels and scanned the situation. No signs of a person -- footprints, other objects. He wished for a long stick to prod it. Maybe there was something underneath. There had been a rain shower earlier in the day and little puddles sat on the material, not soaking in as would happen with normal garments. If it were valuable and someone had merely lost it, that person would return and they probably would not be Indian.

Yellow was a valuable color. Only important lodges were painted yellow because the color came from a fungus that was hard to find. Therefore, this garment must have significance.

He took his horse to the top of a nearby ridge and sat watching for the rest of the day, but no one came. When it was nearly dark, he went carefully back. The yellow garment had not moved. He grabbed the cuff of one sleeve and jerked. Nothing leapt out. Nothing was underneath except a dry patch of grass. His horse snorted and pulled back, then leaned forward to smell. It seemed sceptical, but unafraid.

He counted coup on the garment, yelping. Then grabbed it and jumped on his horse, which panicked from all the flapping around and took off for camp at a run. By the time they got to the circle of lodges, the horse had settled and was content to graze with the others. By now the Indian was also more confident and rolled the garment up as though it were any robe. Except that it rustled and crinkled and had a strange crisp texture and smell.

His wife was very curious about the garment but he forbade her to touch it. They had been hoping for a baby -- they had not been married long -- and he was afraid that the garment would somehow affect her fertility. He asked her to make a rawhide case, cylindrical, to keep this mysterious thing in and she did a good job. Then he painted a design on it and kept it hanging at his place, across the fire from the door.

One day when he had been hunting, he returned to find that his wife was in the lodge and had put on the yellow garment. At first he was very angry, since she should have more respect for his belongings, and he went to her, grabbed her by the neck and intended to choke or shake her -- but then the feel of her slender neck, the pulse in it, her delicate ears and sliding hair, all moved him so that his fingers slipped up to cup her skull and his thumbs rested more gently on her jawbone.

Then he realized that she was not wearing anything under the garment and that she had been singing a song: “Oh, pollen-colored garment, make me bear fruit.” Responding, he made love to her that afternoon while she rustled and crinkled in the yellow stuff. Now and then after that, they would take out the garment and she would wear it while they made love. When the baby was born, in the fall when the aspen were the same color as the coat, she cut a strip off the hem of the garment and sewed it onto the baby’s carrier.

Now the garment seemed to be a part of their marriage, a key to fertility. Others heard about it and asked to borrow it. At first they were reluctant, but finally they had pity and agreed to let others make love wearing it. Nearly always, it worked. The wife, who now had several children and had made space in the lodge for second and third wives who did most of the work, beaded the garment with red stripes and attached small round pocket mirrors to the front.

One day she realized that one pocket had something deep in it and pulled out an envelope with a letter inside it. Neither her husband nor anyone else could read a letter or had even handled one, though they knew what it was. They felt that it was part of the power of the coat and put it back in the pocket. The wife sewed it shut and attached duck feathers to it. Ordinarily, water animals were not used to decorate, because they are too powerful, but this material seemed to bead up water in the same way that ducks did, so there was a harmony, a relationship of function. Over the years the coat became quite splendid with embellishments.

When the oldest son of the couple was about eighteen, he was badly wounded in a rash attack on enemies. Though he was brought home, his life was in serious danger. His parents pledged that if he recovered, they would offer the yellow garment to the Sun at the annual ceremonies. Both came to pass and, with the healed son watching, the coat was attached to the big main forked trunk at the Sun Lodge, so that everyone saw it up there, bright yellow and winking with light from the little mirrors. It was not tightly wrapped and the strange waterproof material waved in the wind. Everyone agreed that it was a highly significant and efficacious sacrifice. When they went on their way at the end of the ceremony, they looked back over their shoulders to get one last glimpse.

Years later a Metis guide was accompanying a cowboy who was looking for a place to establish his own small ranch. Build a house, find a wife, start a family. That’s what life was about. “Look down there,” said the Metis, as they topped a ridge. “You see that framework, that round circle of poles with rafters tied to the center?”

“What is it?” asked the cowboy, who had grown up in New England and came to the prairie partly in search of his lost father, who had gone West and never returned.

“Sun lodge. It would have been covered with leafy branches to make shade for ceremonies. Very holy.”

“Let’s go down there and look.”

The Metis didn’t much want to -- he was superstitious -- but he went along, a little behind the cowboy whom he considered reckless. The cowboy was waiting for him alongside the center pole. Up in the top was something yellow.

“Look! It’s a slicker, an old yellow slicker, with a lot of stuff attached to it.”

“Better leave it alone. It’s an offering. Bad luck to disturb it.”

“Aw, I ain’t afraid.” He stood on his saddle, which made him tall enough to drag the slicker down. Then he had to jump for the ground because his horse was afraid of it. “Look at this thing! Amazing! Pretty tattered, too.”

He spread it out on the grass, properly, with the shoulders at the top, sleeves out to the sides. “Kinda short. Been cut off at the bottom. Maybe so as to be better for riding.” He saw that one pocket was torn, showing a corner of paper. The material was so rotten with age and weather that he could easily tear the slit open and take out an envelope.

The Metis noticed the cowboy’s face go white and his hands begin to shake. Looking around for lightning or a predator bird and seeing none, he asked, “What’s the matter.”

“My father’s name is on this letter. I think the handwriting might be my grandmother’s.” Slowly, he wiped the envelope on his shirt front, though it didn’t need wiping. Carefully he reached inside the old yellow envelope and drew out a sheet of folded paper.

“What does it say?”

He read slowly. “Dear son, I hope by now you have received your father’s old fisherman slicker. He won’t need it anymore since he is sick in bed and will never rise. Sure do wish you were nearby so you could be with him just one more time. But we must all seek our destiny. Please write. We’ve heard nothing from you but will send this with a man who says he’s going to the same territory. Be careful of Indians.”

The cowboy stood holding the paper to his chest. All these years it had been kept dry in the slicker pocket, but now the paper was spotted with tears as its holder sobbed.

The Metis tactfully rode off a little ways and got off to let his horse graze and to let his friend have space for his grief.


On a blog I often read ( there has been a discussion of creativity and where it comes from, so I thought I’d just make a record of where this story came from (as nearly as I can tell) so that others might be able to pull up a story as well.

First, I do have an authentic fisherman’s raincoat (actually, a jacket to be worn with pants) that I used to wear every day in Portland but only rarely here. So I have that sense memory in me. Second, because of the recurring controversy over NA artifacts, I’ve been reflecting about material culture in general and how one person’s ordinary object becomes something strange and therefore possibly magical/powerful to another. I’ve also been thinking about the relationship between generations and how material objects make links.

Bob Scriver and I used to have a continuing joke about Western artists whose theme painting is a yellow-slicker-wearing guy on a horse in the rain. It’s a great recipe for a striking picture. Then I began to see in the Western art mags paintings of old yellow pickups, yellow taxis, and yellow school buses -- all in the rain. So I began with the idea of this yellow object alone on the prairie and what an alert, ground-scannning Indian would make of it.

Bob’s own Holy Lodge was a yellow lodge with a badger on it. When we were composing the ceremony and songs for it, the old-timers who helped us spoke of the continuity among yellow tipis. For instance, the lodge of Old Jim Whitecalf was yellow with a black buffalo jumping over the door. Of course, we didn’t have to go find fungus -- we just used paint.

So, first the man would find the slicker, he would bring it home and try to protect it, stumbling onto the idea that it would make his wife fertile. The community would accept that and use it. Eventually the slicker would be sacrificed, because that was so often a theme of sacredness among Blackfeet.

But there had to be some kind of clue about where that slicker DID come from, so I invented the letter in the pocket (a hidden meaning) and the cowboy, not so different from the Indian who began the story. That created a kind of parallel, but from two points of view.

BUT I left a lot unsaid, so the reader must still guess or might (in a classroom) discuss what else the story means. Will the cowboy decide that Indians killed his father? Will the slicker end up in a museum? Anyway, what DID happen to that man with his father’s slicker? Was it just lost off the back of his saddle when he tied it on carelessly after wearing it through the rain shower? Or did he die some way and the slicker get dragged or blown some distance away? Or maybe it never got to the intended -- was discarded with the letter by the messenger. Well, I love a mystery. I’ll leave it at that.

But I’ll probably embroider this story a little more as time goes on.

Monday, May 22, 2006


An offhand conversation about what accoutrements are sexy -- cigarette lighters, women’s powder compacts, cowboy roping cuffs, wide-brimmed hats and so on -- led to some divergence about suspenders. There were a few other considerations that were a little surprising or puzzling -- like why is it that men’s cufflinks are sexy, but tie clasps are not? But the suspenders issue was a good clue.

It depends upon the suspenders.

When my male cousin, who is my age, reached his late fifties, he assumed the role of the “silver fox” and his daughters collaborated to provide him with some quite elegant high-end matched tie-and-suspender sets, often in prints that involved a lot of purple and blue, worthy of being worn to a black tie event. He, unlike me, didn’t shirk his piano lesson practice, so he is quite fond of spontaneously playing pop favs in cocktail bars. (He lives in Santa Ana, CA.) There his suspenders send a message of prosperous caution -- his pants will NOT fall down! And the insurance was QUITE expensive. But he -- a devoted Republican rightwing Christian -- cannot be accused of extravagance or vanity since it was his daughters who lovingly provided him with these accessories. (So he’s got his suspenders on in that sense as well. He despises embarrassment.)

Late in life Bob Scriver began to show “metabolic syndrome” by becoming apple shaped, so he really NEEDED suspenders to wear with his Dickies khaki. He chose utilitarian bright-red suspenders from the Browning Merc, same place that he got the khakis. On the other extreme, as an animal control officer, I lost weight and had to buy either suspenders or a belt. I opted for black suspenders which no one considered sexy, partly because at that stage of my life I was often covered in dog hair and puppy dribblings. I ALWAYS considered Bob sexy, no matter what he did or didn’t wear.

The point is that accoutrements become sexy by association with a person who is charismatic. It’s not just a matter of outright gender-assignment or even whether the object is inner or outer wear. When I was a child, I had terrible leg aches (they’ve come back now) and the doctor recommended brown laceup oxfords (in an era of Mary Janes) with nice warm full-length stockings. The latter would only stay up with suspenders -- a garter belt, really -- which had to go over my shoulders since at that age I had no waist. It was flesh-colored, basic, and much hated. In that time period, my father wore sock garters that fitted around his legs just below the knee. They had a kind of hideous deception about them, partly because they were just plain ugly striped elastic with little punched-out metal buckles and partly because his legs were bulgy and hairy. I think that maybe both child garter-belts and adult male sock garters are not made anymore.

Female garter belts almost died when panty hose came along. Oddly, panty hose were a boon to me in a reverse-suspender way, since I wore bras that came down to my waist -- or were supposed to -- but constantly rode up. I learned to sew little elastic loops on the bottom of the bra and then button them with pennies twisted into the tops of my pantyhose. Then “torsolettes” or “Merry Widows” came in (with bones) and they, reaching down to hips, had garters attached. They were miserable to wear but still more pleasant than Playtex rubber girdles -- the real torture and probably the real reason that women rebelled finally and just went with jiggles. Or jeans.

So there’s a difference between suspension devices on the inside where they aren’t supposed to be seen, recognized or admitted to, and therefore only sexy in a forbidden context, or ordinary visible-to-the-public suspenders.

There’s definitely an age element here. Little boy suspenders are awfully cute. The suspenders on bib overalls over t-shirts on pretty girls can be cute and flirtatious. (Over nothing at all, they are Omigod.) The suspenders on the excruciatingly handsome best man at a formal wedding can be heart-breaking, especially during the dancing afterwards when his jacket is off and his collar is open. Suspenders on an older working-class grizzled guy with a bit of a paunch -- I have to admit it -- strike a chord with me. Suspenders on me always trip me into little Charlie Chaplin riffs: funny walks, sidelong looks, and hooking my thumbs in the elastic. Tipping my air bowler and twirling my air cane. Not very many people find that sexy, especially in a woman approaching seventy -- but some do.

Just not as many as react to a sweet little rosebud-embellished white satin garter belt or maybe a black lace number with tasteful rhinestones.

There IS one kind of garter that doesn’t turn me on at all. Sheet garters. You know, the kind that go on the corners of contour sheets that won’t stay hooked over the mattress? They may be in bed, but they ain’t sexy. Mine don’t even do what they’re supposed to do. Floppy mattress I guess. Floppy: the opposite of sexy.

See, ties are floppy. That’s why tie clasps are not sexy. Suspenders are snappy. That's sexy.

Monday, May 15, 2006


One of the unaccountable changes in the culture of Unitarians is that for a long time the favorite hymns were all evensongs, about peace and settling for the night in safety. “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, still with me abide.” “When darkness nears and embers die, the wind in trees a distant sigh, the end of day like a lover’s voice nearby.” “Again, as evening’s shadow falls, we gather in these hallowed walls.” Maybe that’s the clue: Vespers services, a habit largely lost when we drifted away from our English roots.

Anyway, somehow a shift happened and everyone wanted to sing, “Morning has broken!” or “The Morning Hangs a Signal.” “Morning So Fair to See.” Upbeat songs about new starts, being up and doing in the sunshine. I did see the dawn, but then -- as is my habit -- once I’d read the paper I went back to bed for a while. Dreams to finish.

Today was the first truly warm day -- I killed a dozen flies still innocent about fly swatters. It was even a little too warm for yardwork in the middle of the afternoon. What did I care? In this house we take a nap then anyway. Squibbie the sentinel was up early and did the morning patrol. Right now she’s out in the dark doing the evening patrol. This time of year she sleeps through midday out in the back garage, which I think of as “Squibbie’s garage.” There’s a loft in it, and that’s where she sleeps until it gets too hot later on. Then she often sleeps by the door or makes cat nests in the long grass. Crackers the clinger sticks with me, sticks TO me.

This evening the town is quiet. Today the irrigation water was turned out from Swift Dam up in the mountains on the reservation and the grain and alfalfa farmers had a lot of work to do with shovels and moveable dams made of tarp and sticks. They’re dayglo red, so easy to spot. School is winding down but there’s still lots of do. This is a town that loves order.

This little house has poplars on the north side, quick to leaf out and quick to drop leaves. They’re fickle, restless trees with roots coming up to the top of the ground, which is hell on lawn mowers. The city forester who came to visit said they were surfacing for air, not water, because our gumbo dirt is so dense. The sound of their leaves rustling has just begun, such a welcome murmur.

The robins have been nesting in the poplars for as long as the trees have been there and were disconcerted when I moved into the house. Worse, I walked around the outside of the house in the dark, brushing against the low branches where they were used to roosting so I sent them shrieking and tumbling off. They were even MORE disconcerted when I brought two cats home! But now they’ve forgiven me because I’m running the sprinkler and there’s nothing a robin loves more than puddling around in a sprinkler where there might be worms. In daylight the finches were singing their hearts out in the big tree on the south side of the house -- I can spot both yellow and red ones -- and I can hear the meadowlarks out on the open lots to the east. The two big evergreens on the west side are full of doves. Sad, sad songs.

At the garbage roll-off I scored a nice big aluminum horse watering trough with the bottom rotted out and dragged it into my backyard to be a "raised flower bed." But it's quite deep -- maybe 3 feet -- so I filled the bottom with styrofoam packing peanuts, then some trash and old bits of wood, and finally a lot of dead leaves. I put the sprinkler on top to settle it all down. In a half hour or so, I went to look and both cats were sitting there staring at it, aghast and ready to run! The water had made the styrofoam float so that the whole thing was rising up like a huge dark ghost about to put one leg over the edge.

Here’s a hymn I don’t know so well: “Stillness reigns; the winds are sleeping. All the world is bent on keeping tryst with night whose wings are sweeping from the west each ray of light.” Or how about, “Now on land and sea descending brings the night its peace profound.” We can use a lot of these images now.

Tomorrow here will be record-setting hot, denominational headquarters in Boston is record-setting wet, but we have peace for now. As Scarlett said, “Tomorrow is another day.” I think I’ll put new batteries in my little keyboard and practice some of these songs. Just to give the big Baptist carillon next door some company. It’s a singing time of year.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


This is going to be a long piece and perhaps not to the taste of some people.

I begin by reminding the reader that I came to the east slope of the Rockies in 1961 to teach English in the Blackfeet Reservation school system, which is not different from the rest of the state-supervised education districts -- in fact, was less different then than it is now. Then it was very much a white-normed school, without the Blackfeet teachers and curriculum parts that make it more specific now. I was deeper into the “dark” parts of the community than most teachers ever are, because of Bob Scriver being the City Magistrate and Justice of the Peace. I also had a lot to do with animals.

When I left here in 1973 -- reluctantly but necessarily -- I went back to Portland, OR, and became an animal control officer, what many people call a “dog catcher.” I’m just beginning a book about the five years I spent doing that, but what’s relevant here is that animal control is “law enforcement lite,” which is to say that officers are on the same turf as regular police and -- like most emergency responders -- see a lot of extraordinary things. Out of this came an interest in “Hill Street Blues,” the seminal cop show that mixed intense realism and considerable sex (“clean” -- as in while showering) with the weird slapstick comedy that is often part of emergencies.

I followed along with “NYPD Blue,” which continued the same pattern, and then “Homicide,” which was not in Manhattan anymore and lost some of the zaniness simply by being in Baltimore. It was quite a bit darker and more philosophical. I’ve always been a fan of the PBS English mysteries -- all costume, dialogue, and gorgeous scenery -- but thought I should check out an American series again. (I don’t have regular TV or cable -- just DVD’s and video.) “The Shield” came up among Netflix suggestions so I ordered the first season and also watched part of “Deadwood.” “Deadwood” was clearly a variation on the theme of “NYPD Blue” with the same skinny neurotic women and the same boundary-busting villains who ironically keep order while the Gary-Cooper-earnest characters either make trouble or get killed. “The Shield” was again the same formula, but this time in LA where crime is a group act and the bad cops had also become a group.

The main insight that came to me about “The Shield” came through listening to the voice-overs of the producer/writer/director teams, who created the show as a group: the rogue cops against the corrupt system were very much a projection of maverick media guys (NO gals) who felt they were evading oppressive “suits” (money men) in order to explore real life. They had a lot of head-trippy things to say, but basically they were channeling Sipowitz without the voice-over of the sane and competent head of police. There was NO decent Gary Cooper figure of any power -- the one dependable conscience was a middle-aged black woman. There are no model marriages.

So now I come to what I’m really writing about: a double media work called “In the Cut,” both a book and a movie. “In the Cut” is slang meaning getting one’s male equipment into the birth/sex canal called in slang “the Virginia” which is adorned with the “broccoli,” pubic hair. It also means a place of safety. For many men, who need the comfort of women but hate their need and reject mothers or even wives, the moments of renewal are “in the cut” or “gash” or “slit.” Women know this, of course, and take advantage of it even as the men take advantage of them.

The plot of “in the cut” is very simple in the book. A woman professor and collector of slang is teaching in New York City and a serial murderer -- who kills by cutting off the heads of the women -- is at large. The prof, Frannie, begins an affair with the investigating officer and is murdered. The author is a Phillipina who previously wrote “The Lovely Bones” which is narrated by a dead woman, a victim of violence. I haven’t read it -- just about it. From her photo, she seems a lot like those thin, smart, hip female officers on “NYPD Blues.”

In the movie, which is directed by Jane Campion, the heroine is played by Meg Ryan, who had just had failed plastic surgery before the movie was shot. (She was badly “cut.”) Nicole Kidman had been scheduled to do this part and either stepped aside or had other commitments. Much is made in the online reviews about Meg Ryan trying to stay young, trying to make a career jump by taking such a hard part (highly emotional parts are always considered very difficult), but I think the change in her appearance pretty much forced her out of her previous niche and this one was a good attempt at finding a new one -- new enough that the old image wouldn’t haunt her. Her face is lumpy, her hair is straight, and she appears in the nude -- evidently with a little help from a better plastic surgeon. I say all this to get it out of the way because some people stop right there.

In the Cut” turned up on the “used & cheap” rack at the Valier gas station: $3. I’ll watch anything for $3. (Except “Eraserhead” which I won’t watch again for any amount of money.) Then I was in Great Falls and the book was remaindered for $5. So it was clear that I had material for a comparison. I’m an admirer of Jane Campion because I loved “The Piano,” and I’ve been curious about Susanna Moore because of her earlier book, “The Lovely Bones.” “In the Cut” was clearly meant to be a followup, which is at least part of the reason it ends with the death of the heroine. (Once you get a good gimmick, why let it go?) It’s only 180 pages of big print, much of which is descriptions of sex. Campion took this as a framework which she covered with her own ideas, highly political and ingenious versions of the war between the sexes -- not the struggle for security in prosperity through marriage (Jane Austen), but in an equally patterned struggle for security through physical relationship. She is not so pessimistic as Edith Wharton, who felt women were hopelessly trapped in their social roles.

Campion’s heroines always have a close female echo, which in this case she inflated out of a character merely mentioned in the book. The echo is Jennifer Jason Leigh, intensified from a friend to a half-sister. (There is also a “cold” echo in a sepia dream version of Meg’s character’s mother meeting her father while ice-skating.) No one enjoys giving decadent misery more than JJL and she really offers it up in this movie, leaving “Frannie” to seem just vague, mixed-up, and -- hey, do you suppose it’s drugs? Or does she need them? The problem seems to be that she was raised in cold prosperity and never learned to form relationships. (Oh, sigh. It’s so tough to be rich. Incidentally, that’s JJL’s background -- prosperous though hardly chilly. Her mother is a screen writer, her father an actor.)

The guys are all variations on the most blatantly phallic symbol in a while: a bright red lighthouse which is echoed in a souvenir on a desk, a drawing in the classroom, and the real thing -- which is a haven for the cops and a place of death for women. “Cornelius,” the black student who defends John Wayne Gacy, is played by the same actor as one of the characters on “The Shield.” He knows the slang but he don’t “get” Frannie. The whole movie is a crossword puzzle of such metaphorical stuff, including the fact that Frannie teaches “To the Lighthouse” by VIRGINIA Wolfe. A student says “it wasn’t no good because it took so long and only one woman died.” “How many women have to die to make it good?” asks Frannie, sounding more like Meg Ryan than usual.

Sex, most often mixed with violence of one sort of another (the erasure of uniqueness and identity -- including plastic surgery -- is also a violence), saturates our culture. Even the most polite people constantly use symbols that point to sex. But sex is not so often seen as a symbol-system that stands for other things, perhaps parts of our culture grown even more cynical and dangerous than sex. Power, oil, war, death.

For those who can count, three women die in this movie so maybe it’s a little better than the book. The third death, not in the book, is a woman found in pieces in the washing machine of the basement laundry room of her apartment building and it is the most gruesome though the “cleanest” of the deaths. But wait -- the narrator dies at the end of the book, her slate wiped clean. So that’s three again.

Campion’s Frannie survives because she shoots the murderer with her cop lover’s (phallic symbol) gun -- which he teaches her how to use. When she practices, it is on “garbage” in a place by water ideal for dumping bodies. She has disempowered her lover by handcuffing him to a radiator pipe. Is this feminism? Or the empowerment of an individual through the disempowerment of another? (I won’t pursue the homoerotic stuff, like cop partners, etc.)

For an English teacher the most interesting part is not necessarily the transit poetry that Frannie reads and records as she rides the subway, but rather her dispassionate and nonjudgmental attitude towards wickedness, even when she is the victim. This attitude seems to have had its origin in anthropology in the 19th century when Euros were constantly invading some other culture and trying to understand it but without any particular empathy.

The earliest Euro anthros on the rez were so dispassionate that they didn’t really understand relationships and bowlderized the pungent mythology so it was suitable for children. Psychotherapists and psychiatrists have picked up the attitude and define everything in what is supposed to be dispassionate but -- in my opinion -- often ends up being bizaarely skewed to narcissism. (My counselor at seminary, a black Baptist minister, told me that he had doubts about me as a minister because I wasn’t having sex with anyone. If I didn’t have an intimate connection with one person, he said, how could I hope to be emotionally accessible to a congregation? I thought of that counselor when a weird little man came to my minsterial study to demand that I sleep with him because that’s what he needed and I was there to serve his needs. What happened to theology? The relationship to God?)

So looking back at “In the Cut,” what does it tell us once we get over the candy high of sex? I think it speaks to 1) the flight of intimacy from marriage. (The cop lover lives at home, sleeps on the sofa, but not with his wife, and only because she can’t “control” the kids.) 2) The loss of connection to generativity: in the book the charm bracelet commemorates an abortion -- in the movie it’s about getting married and having babies. 3) The drive to “make the cut” by “scoring,” relieved only by those moments of safety “in the cut.”

The corruption of the cops, the multi-ethnicity of the streets, the commodification and sentimentalization of sex (The JJL charcter lives over a topless bar where a sweet gay pimp sits by the doorway with one of his “girls” on his knee.), the weirdness of culturally supposed saviors (Kevin Bacon is a doctor who stalks Franny, carrying his Chinese Crested dog, surely the most uncuddly breed on the planet -- which Franny refuses to care for even when the Bacon character hints he will kill it.), the proliferation of tinkling Malibu Beach mobiles and Manhattan prints of tortured nudes -- it’s stylized bi-coastal decadence, a presumed norm that the nation seems to agree is attractive so long as it is circumscribed. (When ministers met at our denominational headquarters in Boston, there was always one who set out to explore the red light district as a place of great fascination and supposed “reality” as in “relating to the real people.” Solid farm citizens around here take their vacations at sleazy gambling cities.)

Our public distaste for political corruption and wartime death/terrorism seems to be equally matched by curiosity for “what the secret meanings are” and “exactly what happened,” but no attempt is made to envision what a better world might be like or how to get to it. There is no hint that Frannie and her lover will marry and live well with happy children. We don’t even know whether the characters are fertile -- evidently not and evidently immune to disease as well. The highest value is simply orgasm.

When people come to the reservation, they either drive through with their windows rolled up for fear of danger, or they head to the nearest bar and pick out some dangerous character to guide them through what they think will be like a movie. Unluckiest, they end up dead. Locals, especially women and children, can find protection by sticking together and creating a sort of alternative inner community which visitors rarely even imagine, which is one of the factors that makes it safe. They hide from strangers.

So this two-layered society -- Frannie and the cops’ worlds versus the mysterious “normal” world of the cop’s family -- is present even here on the high prairie, in a place that is supposed to be so deep into healing nature that evil can only be like the magical Brujo of “The Missing.” It all keys into the Christian binary: above/below, saved/damned, devil/angel -- and the necessity of being extraordinarily powerful and outside the rules (god-like -- or Being President will do) in order to save the weak and innocent. (The Tommy Lee Jones character.) At least in “The Missing” and in the movie version of “In the Cut” the women (in the end) take strong action, but it seems sudden and situational.

One of the most amoral little characters I ever knew was a Blackfeet/Philippino child raised in an urban ghetto. Lie, steal, cheat, hurt others, even destroy himself -- s/he wasn’t really amoral, s/he was antimoral. Two of my male relatives -- generations back and one on each side -- were “lost” in the Philippino wars of their generation -- another U.S. interference in a troubled and different culture that left the country a shambles. (Remember that a shambles is a slaughter-house.) Both came back alcoholic and traumatized, very much like Vietnam vets. One was last seen digging a grave. Being adult is not a protection. Being male is not a protection.

But the movies insist that being in an intimate relationship with a powerful male WILL be a protection. The reservation constantly looks for an heroic man to set things right. The whole nation does the same, looking for a way to be “in the cut,” “in the pink,” by walling off whatever is dangerous. That wall costs money. There are other costs, which the once-fenced rez knows about, like loss of autonomy and growing dependence.

There’s one other factor in this book. Mutilation by cutting, which was a practice among the Blackfeet (cutting off fingers of women and girls to show grief and cutting off noses of immoral women to punish them), and may have some relationship to Asian practices. In “The Object Stares Back: on the Nature of Seeing” by James Elkins there is a chapter called “Looking Away and Seeing Too Much.” A remarkable series of photos shows a woman being executed by slicing her top to bottom with a machete. Machete deaths, even mass exterminations, have become familiar in the newspaper among people too poor to own guns. We look away and we see too much.

Of course, any feminist could tell you that cutting off women's heads keeps them from thinking, makes them manageable.

I wonder what the citizens of Valier thought when they rented this movie. I feel fairly sure no one but me has read the book.

MOTHER'S DAY when the country was in the city

The church that prepared me for the Browning Methodist Church, so that I felt perfectly at home there, was Vernon Presbyterian Church a few blocks from our house in Portland. My mother had transferred her membership up from Roseburg to Westminster Presbyterian Church, but it was too far to walk and my dad was on the road with the car, so she changed again to Vernon. Many of the people who attended had children in Vernon Elementary School so my graduating class -- 1953, the one that has reconvened and is meeting once a month for supper together -- were also represented in my Sunday School class and confirmation as good Presbyterians. (John Webber didn’t go to our church but this afternoon T.J. Star is playing the Stan Freeburg parodies that he used to pantomime, which is what got me thinking about Vernon. You remember the Dragnet officer arresting the dragon for overacting?)

In general, the Vernon neighborhood was not unlike Valier -- mostly European immigrants but more of them were probably British in origin. Certainly that was true at the Presbyterian Church. Almost everyone had grown up in the country or a small town, because that was true of everyone in those days. It was important to be healthy and reliable and most everyone was.

So I’m remembering the Mothers’ Day dinner. (The Methodists here sponsored a pancake breakfast and the Catholic man across the street took his wife.) Ours was pretty much ladies only -- oh, yes, “pretty” ladies who wore flowered dresses and nylons and permed their hair at home. Few ladies had jobs. Not all of them owned suits. Heels were not high. The food must have been chicken with potluck side-dishes. That’s nearly always what was served for group meals in those days -- probably chicken a la king or with mashed potatoes rather than fried. And Jello stuff, though there was no Tupperware yet.

I was small and the main impression I got was of the symbolism of the little corsages everyone wore: a red carnation if your mother was living and a white carnation if your mother was dead. I asked about pink carnations and was shushed, so I thought they must be for mothers who were very ill, which my mother’s mother was at that point. (“Shhh. Don’t talk about it. She’s just resting now.”) I pondered flower language for a long time and wondered whether there were such a thing as yellow carnations and what they might mean, which shows that symbolism can be kind of dangerous. Mothers with a liver problem? Chinese mothers? (The Chinese family to which my Chinese friend and classmate belonged was next door to the church, but she was Baptist.)

The atmosphere was a kind of pleased flurry of femininity, a solidarity among women who were competent and married. Strength in ruffles. The folding chairs were the old wooden kind, not the clashing metal ones or stackables we use now, but hard on hose. (A woman downtown in Meier & Frank sat in a tiny booth and mended “runs” in hose.) In Portland this time of year the weather is fragrant with blossoming and mown lawns. A lady down the street raised bantam hens in her back yard and sold us eggs. Another one had a fig tree of which she was very proud. (I didn’t like figs, I decided, but my mother made a great fuss about them.)

It was after WWII and Korea didn’t seem so pressing yet. People felt that the future was bright -- most of all in America, where we were so lucky to live. We didn’t know anything about ghettoes and not much about crime. The world was a garden. We knew there were snakes, but we also knew how to handle a hoe or a spade, which were not anything metaphorical but only garden implements.

I can’t decide whether that was an excellent foundation for a life or whether it was a handicap. Anyway, I smiled through Stan Freeberg’s 1951 compilation of funny business. Remember the one where the guy is conducting a choir signing “On Top of Old Smokey” and can’t remember the words and says so -- but the choir thinks he’s telling them lyrics and sings everything he says?

Friday, May 12, 2006


Health stuff is probably best not handled alone, in particular when it is something as poorly understood and chronic as diabetes. It seems clear that it is a symptom as much as a disease and that it is quite different from one person to another. When I Google now, I don’t use “diabetes” but rather “metabolic disorder” since it seems clear that for most people it is connected to lipids (fats), blood pressure, and lifestyle. (I’m beginning to hate that word.) Luckily, the Internet makes it possible for many people who have never met to share what they know. I thank my faithful forwarders!

I thought I’d summarize what I’ve found and what people have sent me. If I have to attribute, it will get too complicated, so I’ll just summarize the gist of the ideas so far.

1. Visceral fat wrapped around internal organs has something to do with disfunctional metabolism, which is why a bulging belly is associated with the condition. Aside from crowding organs, this fat excretes molecules that affect almost everything, including dementia and inflammation (another marker for trouble). The cure is not sit-ups, which affects muscles, nor liposuction, which only gets fat just under the skin. This fat responds quickly to diet and exercise and will be the first fat lost. This is certainly true for me. In fact, I had the strange sensation of my organs re-spacing themselves after I’d lost twenty pounds.

2. If inflammation is a problem, lots of fish oil in a low-calorie diet could help a lot. Avoid corn oil and fructose derived from corn oil -- it won’t be easy. Much manufactored food depends on corn. My grocery store is selling individual servings of fish in separate frozen packets. Very nice. And I take a big old fish oil capsule twice a day. And try not to burp.

3. The U S Dept of Ag suggests taking 200 to 1,000 micrograms daily of chromium picolinate. The US Dept of Ag has no credibility with me. Might be just another product “for diabetics.” Anyway, you can find long lists of this esoteric stuff that diabetics should take, partly because diabetics who are uncontrolled pee so much that they leak away what ought to be conserved.

4. Likewise Alpha-lipoic Acid, 600 milligrams a day for four weeks to get results. How much would that cost?

5. Salacia oblonga is an herb used for diabetics in India. Doses are not standardized and it’ll raise Cain with your gut if you take too much. Caution and expert advice required. (NOT a health food store clerk.) Especially if you are not a genetic East Indian.

6. Vitamin C seems to be an unmitigated good, except that I found from sorry experience that if you take it with aspirin and don’t have buffered versions, it can eat a painful hole in your gut.

7. Go for the brights. Yellow, orange and red foods, plus dark green stuff and blueberries, are all terrific, they say. Anyway, I like the taste of them. The problem is paying their price. Aaagh. (One expert says use your meat money on veggies.) And I don’t like them when they’re shipped in from below the equator. Grow one's own? Every house with a yard for the dog and a greenhouse for the table?

8. Aminoguanidine is supposed to do good things. I dunno.

9. The brain makes insulin and it can become independently inefficient, which may have something to with Alzheimer’s. Everything is connected to everything.

10. If you joined Weight Watchers and followed their advice (and if you enjoy all that applause when you do well), you’d be close to almost everything fancier and more expensive experts recommend. Over the years I’ve joined repeatedly, made a little progress, but been too much of a maverick to stay. (If you want me to do something, do NOT say, “Everyone else is doing it.”) BUT in the process, I’ve learned a lot of things.

11. Pay special attention to things that affect your mind: too tired, dehydrated, sugar too high or low, and so on. “Too cold” is one that creeps up on me. When I’m saving by not turning up the heat (which is a problem right now when the outdoors is warm but the indoors is chilly -- so it’s not just in winter), I can, without realizing it, end up crouched and staring. People who get too cold while hiking (again, a problem this time of year when fine misty rain or sudden overcast can suck the heat out of a hiker), often have no idea it’s happening. People have to monitor each other. Loners are sometimes found dead of hypothermia with a perfectly good jacket in their backpack. The best defense seems to be a strong habit pattern (for instance, a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break for tea and self-reflection), check-lists posted here and there (I forget to take my pills), a practice of walking around for five minutes out of every hour. (I have a church next door that plays bells on the hour and half-hour -- that helps.) It helps to keep pets who stay on a schedule and come interrupt you if you aren’t functioning. If your eyes are blurry, that’s a danger sign. Retinas react to bad blood stuff, esp. sugar which makes them puff up -- even (in extremes) peel from their backing. Naps are good.

12. Always eat breakfast. One friend told me that he knows his brother-in-law loves his diabetic sister because he makes her get up and eat breakfast. (I hope he wakens her with a kiss!) My current favorite is yoghurt and Cheerios, an invention due to a lack of milk at 5AM, but I really like it!

THE THIRTEENTH RULE: What’s good for the diabetic is good for everyone else, too. This isn’t true of very low calorie diets and little folks need some fat. Each of us has variations in the way we metabolize foods and do better on slightly different relationships among fat/protein/sugars/carbs. Still, this wealth of new information is as vital as the discovery of vitamins. There are formidable economic forces holding us away from it (like people who sell vitamins in pill form). To me, that’s reason enough to exert equal and opposite force for health, diabetes or no diabetes.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


“How can the two of them be “womb-mates” and so different?”
They probably have different fathers, even though they are littermates. More than one male can mate with a female when she is in heat, and all the resulting kittens are born at once. Happens all the time.

Well, some smart aleck anonymous (A. Nonny Mouse?) commentor just blew the mystery that I was going to begin with for this section of Cat Stuff, so I’ll just go with it. These two kittens were “womb-mates,” I was assured, and the mother was what I call a “pastel calico.” (Don’t listen, vet assistants!) That is, she was tri-colored, but they were all pale colors. Tri-colored is good because it means there are two X-genes so there is extra information. I wanted short haired cats but she had a kind of double-coat, some long and then an underfur. Of the two kittens, the tortie has short plushy downy fur and the yellow ombré (I really like that word -- maybe I should have named these two “Ombré” and “Penumbra.” Naw. Too pretentious for Valier cats.) has fur more like hair, flat.

What I don’t know is how many “baggies” they came in. That is, the birth sacs. One for each? Or two in one bag? The mother cat was elderly and I suspect that there were other ova that simply didn’t get fertilized or that were too old to develop properly so were resorbed. It is, as Commentator points out, quite common for cats to have several fathers in one brood of kittens -- or so it is thought. I don’t know who did the DNA analyses that proved this.

But it’s accepted as fact that cats ovulate at the time of mating and they have been observed repeatedly mating. I have a notion, however, that this cat was NOT supposed to mate and only escaped outside once, but I base that on the extremely orderly and controlling human mother. The question is, why didn’t such a careful planner get the cat spayed? The confusion of a collapsing marriage? (A divorce had been begun.)

Close molecular comparison of DNA has been a revelation. We’ve discovered how many animals that were supposed to mate for life actually fool around on the side a bit. We’ve discovered that while Tarzan of the Chimps was out pounding his chest and swashing branches around, his fav girl-friend Tillie was doin’ it behind his back with some poetic anthropoid.

More amazing than that (I mean, what reasonably experienced person expected something different?) is the discovery that some people are two people. If twins begin to develop, but something stops one from growing at an early stage, it can be built into the surviving twin, so that one woman had one kind of DNA in this organ and another kind (her potential but nonexistent sister’s) in that organ. One boy was born seemingly normal, later became “pregnant” because his scrambled-up potential sibling, who early-on didn’t keep developing, appeared (still scrambled) during his adolescence as a cyst in his abdomen. And they say that women who carry and give birth to children might have cells from those children wandering around in their bodies for many years afterwards.

I read once that there are some basic structural advantages for predators so successful that they evolve over and over in mammal, reptile, dinosaur, or whatever. The eyes need to be big, right up front, sensitive enough to see in the dark; the short nose and big ears need to be equally sensitive and up on the front of the skull like the camera at the tip of the laparascope that pushes the sensors through the tunnel. Long bodies, springy legs, clingy clawed paws. Weasels, ferrets, lizards and so on. It is very hard to get much variation in the genome of a cat -- it either works like this or it gets aborted. Even the gene that causes a short tail in a Manx can only be single -- if it’s on both sides of the double helix, the cat will be born with an open spine and will not survive.

The often-ignored side of cat breeds is that the in-breeding necessary to achieve a certain look means that those cats will be much more vulnerable to genetic mutations, mismatches, and diseases. It takes a certain kind of emotional grit to create a high percentage of doomed kittens in order to have, say, a flat-nosed, short-furred cat with a particular coloration -- or a bald cat (ugh). Of course, it takes a certain amount of grit to allow a cat to get pregnant over and over without any plan for the kittens beyond giving them away to strangers or abandoning them somewhere. (People have the idea that Valier is a good place to leave kittens that aren’t cute anymore.) Of course, if your cats are out in the country, the local predators (including the farm machinery) will probably take care of them. But a certain kind of urban person insists that all cats live indoors at all times.

When I google , I get 1,650 hits. One person talks about the need for a framework of “marker” genes and then a “dense map.” Another is mixing genes from domestic cats with various species of wild cats. I’ve seen a few of these crosses. It’s great when they have a housecat disposition with a big burly body instead of the other way around. Here’s the stuff one seminar discussed for the sake of breeders who were having problems: fading kitten syndrome and neonatal isoerythrolysis; molecular genetic tests; feline hereditary coagulopathies; the feline genome project; heritable characteristics, phenotypic expression and natural history of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in Maine Coon Cats; hereditary eye diseases; lysosomal storage diseases in cats; patellar luxation and hip dysplasia in cats; heritability of susceptibility to infectious disease; polycystic kidney disease in Persian cats; development strategies for DNA-based tests for cat parentage verification. You’ve got to have grit to face all this stuff.

Of course, if you just lower your resistance and let a cat choose you, you’ll probably acquire a survivor. Which is something to consider when you know that scientists say that the genes of a cat, which are only molecules of proteins after all, are often found in humans as well. We’re all mammals and share that formula, but more than that, viruses carry gene molecules back and forth, especially if your cat -- like mine -- sleeps under your chin.

So now the cat is out of the bag: what about West Nile Virus which kills horses and cats?? What about the bird flu which is said to kill cats? What about those Germans who, on hearing this, immediately disposed of their cats? You’ve got to have grit. Cats aren’t for pussies.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


“Look,” a few of my friends say, “Why do you never write about something ‘cute’ -- you know, like your kitties. If you wrote something ‘cute’ maybe you could sell some writing for a change.” (They also are convinced that if I wrote some porn, it would sell but don’t explain how they know or what they think porn is anyway. Or why I would be able to write it.)

Okay. Kitties. But they’re not really very “cute,” you know. The two of them are roasting alongside me under what is supposed to be my work light. They think they are very imposing -- formidable -- indomitable. A lion and a tiger!

I do think that part of their appeal is that they’re about the size of a very young baby and bring out one’s maternal impulses. In fact, I read something the other day about how EMT’s and nurses practice how to insert a breathing tube in a baby (a very tricky but sometimes life-sustaining necessity) by inserting them down the throats of cats, whose throats are about the same size as a baby’s -- which is maybe why their cries have the same attention-getting pitch as babies. (The cats are mercifully anesthetized for these tube practices, but they must wake up with very sore throats, thinking, “Whatever I swallowed, I’ll never do it again.”)

My two cats get a lot of cuddling and baby talk -- more than they want sometimes, since they are adult cats with agendas of their own. At first I was worried that they might not purr, but they do -- even vary the pitch, speed and loudness which I hadn’t noticed in other cats. Baby bears purr when they nurse and I think it would be a good thing if human beings of all ages purred now and then. It’s such a satisfactory sound. Once in a while these cats decide they ARE babies, but then I get bugged by the neediness and perversely remind them of their cat agendas. “Don’t you have anything to DO?” I demand, just as my mother used to demand of me.

I didn’t get cats this time until the August I had a teaching job, which I thought would bring in enough money to pay for neutering, shots, cat food and little felt mice stuffed with catnip. In November I quit the job, which was quite intolerable. (Half of new teachers quit in the first five years, no matter how much money they owe for college.) Too late to return the cats.

I have a pattern in cat preference based on color. My first childhood cat was yellow -- fancy folks call them “ginger” -- and my first Browning, MT., cat was calico. I can’t remember where she came from. So I had it in my head that I wanted one of each so that the two could keep each other busy when I had things to do. I watched the classified ads and was delighted to see a pair of sisters: one calico and one yellow-striped. They were in Great Falls. I called ahead, threw a cat carrier in the pickup and took off. Thus began an experiment in genetics versus environment.

The cats’ house was for sale, a very nice split level; the mother was grim; there were three little girls, which I thought was a good sign because these kittens would have been packed around, dressed up, and generally humanized; the mother cat seemed calm and curious; the human father, an Air Force man, was summoned by phone. The calico turned out to be a tortoiseshell and the yellow stripe was certainly a very ombré sort of stripe and more gravy than ginger. But we made the deal -- free, of course -- and I left. One little girl became hysterical with grief and I was worried but the mother said, “Just leave. Take the kittens and get out of here.” She meant it.

The day was very hot and the yellow kitten nearly expired though I had a jar of water and a washrag with which I dampened its fur. I ought to have stopped by a sprinkler and held her in the spray. The vet who altered the cats, a little young, left each of them with a furry little udder effect which I didn’t like much, but which has since helped to identify them at a bit of distance. I have no idea how or why he did it. When I told the receptionist that the tortoiseshell was a “confetti calico,” she was offended. SHE was the keeper of colors.

I named the tortie “Squibs” (which my next door neighbor can’t pronounce and calls “Scrubs”) and the yellow one “Crackers,” names from an old prairie joke about funny names for things. (Squibs-and-crackers is supposed to mean "pants". Barnacle is supposed to mean “bed,” so I’m saving Barnacle for a dog name.) The two babies soon showed very divergent personalities except for a scrambling intention to explore everyplace and eat as much as they could hold. I shut them into my bedroom while I was making preparations, but they flattened out and slid easily through the small space under the door cut by previous owners to accommodate a carpet, now gone.

Squibs is small, a ten-pound cat. I’ve known several Torties and they were all small. Her personality is LARGE, almost Siamese. She’s very stubborn and so oblivious to any admonitions that for a long time I thought she was deaf and would throw a slipper or magazine to get her attention. If she thought she was in trouble, she screamed. When the back of the pickup was open, she jumped in and when I spoke to her -- didn’t even touch or yell -- she screamed. Her rear assembly was a little faulty and I wondered if she’d been thrown or kicked.

Once the kittens were big and oriented enough go out by themselves (I worried about the village owl who sat in the tree and gloated: “Hoo, hoo, hoo!”), she explored far and wide -- but then she would panic and call for us desperately all the way back to where Crackers and I sat reading. (Well, I was reading while Crackers was sleeping, our favorite and synergistic pursuits.) I’d answer, “We’re in here! We haven’t disappeared! Here we are!” By her tiny Doppler effect, I could track her approach.

Now, five years old, Squibbie is still the explorer but she thinks about such things much more and talks less. Since I’ve been walking for my diabetes, she is very curious about where I go. I cross the street and go around that block, which includes the village park. Somehow the cats have learned not to cross the street, partly because it’s the dividing line with Caspar’s territory -- Caspar being the big dominating cat across the street. So Squibbie cranes her neck as I go up the north side of the block and disappear. It’s amazing how long her neck can get.

I do my tour around the park, which is where the owl “lives,” and come back on the south side -- which totally astounds the cat, still looking where I disappeared. When I attract her attention, she leaps in the air, runs to meet me, and then stops to roll in some dirt so I won’t get the wrong idea. When I go to the post office two blocks to the north, the story is the same except that there are excellent places to lie in wait. When I begin to get close to home, she charges out from behind some iris spears and grabs my ankle. “Gotcha!”

There is something about the genome of a three-colored cat that makes it a little smarter, a little more predacious, a little more resourceful. Sometimes I call Squibbie “the velveteen lizard.” She’s emotional, with big round green-grape eyes that almost take up her whole face except for a pink nose which is a good indicator of her state. Bright pink means either she’s aroused or it’s cold outside. Pale pink means indifference and warmth. Now and then I call her the “mottled cat” or “pickle eyes” or “babycat,” because she’s soft and seems more boneless -- but she is less willing to be held unless I’m at the computer. If she wants to be held then, she walks in front of the keyboard and puts one front paw in the middle of my chest. I rarely refuse.

Crackers is a broad-butted blonde who mostly sleeps her life away. She might as well be a sofa cushion most of the time. I had some very nice beaded sofa cushions (I beaded them myself!) until she ate the beads off. She also enjoys the buttons on my shirts and nightgown and the bows on my red reading glasses, but not those on other glasses. She likes to chew pins and needles, so I have to watch carefully if I’ve been sewing. Evidently near-sighted, she squints her aquamarine eyes and rubs her cool, damp, pencil-eraser nose along my wrist and up the side of my hand. And she never says anything.

For a while Crackers got very fat, which caused my neighbor to mock her, and made her resistant to the neighbor’s pre-school granddaughter who was determined to pick her up by grabbing her around the middle. Crackers just made herself heavy and hissed, but I was afraid that the girl would get bitten and had to get more tough with her than I do with the cats. Of course, I can swat the cats. Finally, I spoke to the grandmother about rabies. (The cats catch bats all the time and this county is often quarantined.) I told her that if the cats bit the girl, their heads would have to be sawed off and sent to a pathologist so that the girl could be spared rabies shots. She wasn’t that impressed, but I convinced her that it might traumatize the little girl to know she caused the deaths of the cats she so wanted to carry around.

Crackers also developed a skin condition, little knots of scab that itched fiercely. The vet said it was a hormone problem, but I had no money to treat it -- which was probably a good thing. I dabbed Vaseline on the scabs to ease the itching, learned to sleep with her scratching (From the beginning she has slept in my left armpit.), and whatever it was went away when the fall fur-growing cycle began. She gets hay fever, too, and makes terrible sounds like a grandmother who falls asleep in her rocking chair after supper.

Now how can anyone seriously call all this “cute”? I call them a genetic puzzle. How can the two of them be “womb-mates” and so different? One is twice the size of the other -- it’s the little one who is fierce. One is dark and one is light. One can hardly be separated from me and the other does NOT want to be detained from her roaming. The only thing they have in common is that from the back alley they can both hear a catfood cat open.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Sometimes the peripherals to Western writing as as delightful as the books themselves. Two examples are at my elbow.

The first is the catalog of the High Plains Press, “Publishing Fine Books on Wyoming and the West.” The cover of the 6”X11” publication is horizon-orientation: a simple, almost Oriental, picture of four horses eating hay off snow. My first impression was that it was a watercolor, but it’s finely detailed enough to be a photo. One thing is certain: it’s the cover for “Beasts in the Snow: Poetry of the American West,” by Jane Elkington Wohl, an instructor at Sheridan College in Wyoming and in the Goddard College MFA in Writing program at Vermont. The blurb suggests that Wohl “sees through her skin”, like a worm: the weights and textures of things -- then reflects upon them in an unwormlike way.

Looking at this catalogue and thinking about the many ongoing conversations about why the genre Western tale is dying out every place but the movies (where it appears to be actor-driven -- more than a few big-name actors own ranches) and why even “literary” Western writing has slowed down, I see a new ground forming. First of all, it is about real -- sometimes historical -- people of the West and, second, about the sensory world of the West, mostly in poetry. I own some of these books (“Sheepwagon,” “Naming the Winds,” and “Landmarked: Stories of Peggy Simson Curry.”). They remind me of Canadian writing: extremely well-done and authoritative, but not slick. Each book belonging to itself. In Canada such books are considered national treasures and are subsidized by the government. In the USA most publishers snort and say they’ll never make the 10% profit level required by their investors. (They have no awareness of Canadian publishing at all, and few Easterners think there IS a Western publishing phenomenon.) American Western publishers “do it for love.”

So I am even more pleased that Dale Burk has published “Untold Tales of Bison Range Tales” by Ernie Kraft. For me, this is a trifecta win. First of all, Burk with his Stoneydale Press was one of the early writers to understand the importance of artists on the northern plains. (His two art books are reviewed earlier in this blog.) Highly educated and very hip, Burk has tenaciously marketed books for the “hook and bullet” crowd by not going the usual book chain route but by selling through such unexpected venues as sports stores. (Martin Murie does this, too, and reports success.) His fine photography is featured in a recent book and he has a number of fine history books. Check them out: Internet websites may be the salvation of Western publishers, if you know to look for them.

Second, the Moiese Bison Range is a legendary operation that Bob Scriver and I were lucky enough to be part of in the Sixties before concerns about insurance and disease crowded all outsiders out of the operation. It was a most amazing experience that stayed with us the rest of our lives. The men were so cooperative and open to sharing what they knew that Bob’s bronze “Real Meat” could be based on actual measurements of specific animals, and his understanding of bison behavior went deep. We often talked about those weeks, telling each other the tales all over again.

Ernie Kraft was the guy assigned to chaperoning Bob and then the two of us. When he found out that Bob had a good horse and knew what he was doing, Ernie opened up about his enormous love for the range and the buffs. He was writing even then, in the Sixties, and accumulating a hoard of photos and stories. He suggested that I write about the range, and I intended to, but life moved quickly. Now my story is a section of my biography of Bob, "Bronze, Inside and Out" to be published by the University of Calgary Press in the spring, but I’m jubilant that Ernie got his book done. We only participated in the roundup a few times, but Ernie worked there for more than thirty years. It was a remarkable crew, marked by courage and careful judgment.

In 1990 I attended a writer’s workshop taught by Peter Matthiessen and we immediately established a relationship based on our memories of the Bison Range, which Peter had visited earlier in the tenure of C.J. Henry, the visionary manager who thought artists and writers were important to the future of the herd. I don’t know whether Peter wrote about it. This was long before the ruckus along the edge of Yellowstone. It was also before “meat bison” became a crop, so that fifteen miles from here is a ranch where a mob of two-year-olds stand around among the irrigation equipment waiting to become steak and none of the big rogue bulls that we dealt with would be tolerated. It was before “bison-in-a-box” hunts were held on ranches where for a fee people could shoot confined animals.

The West is a haunted place where the new ghosts push the old ones a little farther back in memory all the time, even as the writers return them to life once again. Reading these books will let you walk among them far more vividly than building a McMansion in a hayfield.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


In 1967 Adolf Hungry Wolf showed up at Indian Days in Browning, Montana, with a white wife and an armored car converted to a camper. I hasten to say, in my white man’s competitive way, that I got here earlier (1961) encumbered only by the trunk that my father before me took to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg and about fifty whiskey boxes packed with books. Now I’ll shut up about me, because this is about Adolf.

Over the years many napi-kwans (white people) have come to Browning both to take and to give, but none have been quite like Adolf. Born in Austria, his birth name is hard to spell and can only be pronounced properly by people like Mary Eggermont-Molenar, translator of “Montana, 1911.” But unlike Uhlenbeck, the Dutch linguist who came to study for two summers, Adolf took on the life of the Blackfeet -- the 19th century Blackfeet at that. Remarrying to Beverly Little Bear Hungry Wolf (also an author and educator), they raised a family in a lodge -- not a hunting lodge but a real tipi. He’s one of the few napi-kwans to really learn to speak Blackfoot (It’s said singular on the Canadian side.) and to sing the old songs. He became a Bundle Keeper in the early days before the Neo-Traditionalists realized what they were. Of course, though he didn’t become Siksika (the Blackfoot name for their nation) he is now the father of more than a few of them. To do this, he has paid a high price in energy, emotion, and economic hardship.

But he never surrendered some of his Austrian qualities and training: high standards of historical scholarship, relentless research, tenacity, a certain stick-game attitude of mischief, and conservation of collections. He has supported his family by self-publishing and professionally publishing a whole tribe of books about the Piegan or Pikuunni (same thing) based on his research and acquisitions, which included more than 2,000 photographs -- each of which he showed to tribal elders to get good descriptions. The early books were locally printed, stapled together, and mailed out by the family. You can pick them up on Amazon or through the usual used book resources. Not very expensive.

Now comes something entirely new, a real jump in both Hungry Wolf’s production and in what is available in terms of Siksika research. Four big volumes, each packed with information acquired over a long period of time and checked by authoritative Siksika elders -- lots of stuff you can trust about the undivided nation that is located on both sides of the 49th parallel. I assume it is mostly 19th Century material.

Volume One: “Pikuunni History and and Culture” $70
Volume Two: “Pikuunni Ceremonial Life” $75
Volume Three: “Pikuunni Portfolio” $65
Volume Four: “Pikuunni Biographies” $95

These are available on the USA side only through the Blackfeet Heritage Center at 406-338-5661. The information is not posted on their website yet: I personally will call my bank for a loan on Monday and then drive up to get all four books. They are that significant. Any student of the Blackfeet, academic or not, would be a fool not to buy them before they’re all gone.

Adolf’s courage and imagination have allowed him to exist in a space he had to invent -- not just between Siksika and Napi-kwan, but also between institutional and personal. The academic world has been a strangling and strangled force, imposing outside values on inside cultures, so that anthropologists and linguists come only for a season and then are dependent on committees to recognize and publish their work -- often committees hostile or deaf to the work they have done or more concerned about budget than knowledge. Before the professors got here, it was the missionaries who at least tried to learn the language before they blindly set about extinguishing it along with its culture. Adolf is an “assimilated anthropologist,” who became what he studied, sometimes baffling enrolled Pikuunni who were struggling to go the other way: figure out the Napi-kwan and enter their economic world.

Naturally, this kicked up a lot of emotions and reactions among a broad spectrum of people. Some thought he was a nut, some thought he was a thief, some thought he was absolutely stone cold sincere. I’ve been converted to the last position.

Adolf never pretended to be a born Indian, though he wore braids and ribbon shirts. He never charged Germans thousands of dollars in order to include them in elaborate ceremonies. He never did a Sioux-style Sun Lodge complete with fasting and piercings. He never blathered on about "spirituality." Lots of others with his interests DID do all this and in the process moved many Holy Objects out of the Siksika world, let the ceremonies relax, and slipped around behind the scenes to make deals. (Well, maybe Adolf did a little of that last.)

When one goes into archives across the continent with the intent to study Pikuunni materials, maybe hoping to find something previously unknown, when you get the check-out card you find out Adolf was already there.

Just let me put this bug in your ear that’s about Bob Scriver, who built the building that now houses the Blackfeet Heritage Center. Before he sold his collection of Blackfeet artifacts to the Edmonton Royal Museum, thinking they would be protected there, he paid Marshall Noice -- a very fine photographer -- to photograph every object. His thought was that everyone could buy the book for $65 or at least go look at it in the library. Those self-published books now sell for $800. ("The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains".) The collection itself has been partially dispersed.

There is no immortality for things, people or even cultures -- but one can lend them time by making and keeping a record. Bless that Adolf -- on his own terms.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Marvin Shaw, professor of religion in Bozeman, now retired, used to speak of “regression in service to the ego.” That is, returning to a way you were earlier, that might be considered childish, in order to regroup and address a problem. Maybe on a child level, where one sees it all the time, a toddler goes back to thumb-sucking to self-comfort in a bad time, then gives it up again when things get better.

I want to turn this concept to weight loss, which I’m finding full of ambiguities and contradictions. The weight loss this time is happening -- REALLY happening -- because if I don’t do it, my death will be hastened, to say nothing of a lot of very unpleasant afflictions in the meantime. There’s no internal arguing and bargaining possible.

On the other hand, food is a chief way to self-comfort and nurture. One can’t just discard it. Our culture treats food like sex -- just this once, everybody does it, don’t be a stuck-up hold-out, women looove chocolate, don’t you love me? One side is this big emotional morass. On the other side is a health industry determined to document everything in tiny detail and technical vocabulary: calories, vitamins, anti-radicals, glycemic level, carb count. If you do this, your risk goes up 3 notches, if you do that it comes down 5 notches.

This morning I was 222 pounds, which doesn’t pertain unless you know that when I was diagnosed with diabetes I was knocking my head on 250. To me that’s some sort of boundary, since in my growing-up family the bathroom scales only went to 250. My father passed that limit when I was still in grade school. He worked for an ag wholesale co-op and would sometimes weigh on their scales, like feed sacks and wool bales. He struggled and struggled to lose weight but didn’t -- and the failure killed him at 63. (I’m 66 now.) So now you know that 222 is good and 66 is good, but not the goal. I’d settle for 160 (one doctor said that when women get to that, truck drivers begin to whistle at them, but that was a couple of decades ago) and maybe 80 years. My blood pressure is hovering right around the goal of 130 over 80. I still don’t understand the many forces affecting my blood glucose scores, though they are mostly good.

Losing weight is rather like going back in time, mostly because I’m fitting back into clothes I used to wear. I discarded all but the ones I really loved, so I’m delighted to put on shirts I last wore when I was in the ministry (‘78-’88). There’s a particular pair of workshirts with fine detailing and double sleeve forearms in which I was very happy. And a persimmon velveteen jacket with jet trim that was my all-time best dress-up. They’re still a little small.

As I wear those clothes, I begin to dream bits of my life in the eighties. I think of the people I knew then -- some of them gone now -- and the places I lived -- some of them uncomfortable. I never go back as far as the time when I lived where I was born. When I was a small child -- primary school age -- I was very thin. This coincided with WWII and a certain amount of rationing, but we had a Victory Garden. I was more conscious of the starving children in other places than I probably ought to have been. It was suggested to me that I’d better deserve my good luck. I think it was a little too early and I was a little too over-sensitive not to assure me that there would always be enough good food. I wept often, my teachers pointed out on report cards.

Once my mother sent us to bed with no supper as punishment. When my father got home, late, there was a long discussion and we were wakened to eat, at my father’s insistence. That punishment was never used again. (Both my parents had known serious food shortages as rural people in the Thirties and had delayed marriage because of that.) My mother was lonely and unhappy in those years (her own mother was dying of cancer and she was a country girl transplanted to a city she didn’t understand yet) and maybe that scared me. When I slide into the feelings I had during those years (which sometimes happens without me realizing), then I’m suddenly starving.

When I felt this in the years I was with Bob Scriver, I would go to him and ask to be held. He always did it, no questions asked. Then I wasn’t hungry. He always felt eating was a bit of an interruption of more interesting things. When we traveled, he’d say, “Oh, let’s drive another hundred miles -- THEN we can eat.” I weighed 135, which is a size twelve, and felt beautiful. But his mother urged food on us. When I was sick, even before Bob and I were married, she always showed up with a can of soup. I had the feeling she would have loved to spoon it into my mouth herself. Nurturing control. Most people probably recognize it. Resisting it makes me thin, but if one resists the control, one also loses the nurturing.

They say that the way fat cells work is that if there is more glucose to store, they don’t make more cells but rather pack it away until each fat cell is practically bursting. Then when one loses weight, the number of fat cells doesn’t diminish but rather release what they’ve been hoarding. When they take in the original fat, they also suck up a bit of whatever else is in the blood, and when they empty, they put that “whatever” back into the blood stream along with the glucose. So a contaminant -- say dioxin or ag chemicals, in tiny fat soluble traces that had been stored for many years -- might be released back into a system that has in the meantime been aging and meeting other challenges. So it’s important to take anti-oxidating substances to help resolve and excrete them. They say LSD and cannabis can be stored this way, but I never took them anyway.

If one is holding down blood glucose levels at the same time as restricting calories in order to lose weight (the thinner one is, the better one’s natural insulin works) it gets a little tricky, and I think this is one of the things that makes my blood glucose higher than I expect it to be. (Not high enough to be alarming.) I think my system releases fat as glucose which make the readings higher.

And I dream of yesterday, when I was thinner, lived somewhere else, knew different people -- all memories stored someplace, maybe in fat cells. In the brain fat cells serve as insulation for the electro-chemical messages racing around. Maybe that accounts for the sharpness of the dreams, the rising-from-the-unconscious memories, the emotions faint as stains. Starvation in service to the body. And it is up to my mind and the metabolism of writing to deal with it.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Book festivals in Montana began in Missoula when the literati there were triumphant and then they spread to Billings which is always willing to compete with the other cities in other parts of the state. Those who look at a map with a geo-eco eye will see that the latter is out on the eastern badlands and the former is tucked into a confluence of valleys on the western side of the Rockies. In fact, there is a rumor that the whole Flathead Valley was supposed to be Idaho, with the Rockies serving as a boundary with Montana, but a surveyor was bribed to draw the line that put the valley on the Montana side, because there was supposed to be gold. There was not.

Great Falls grew up in the middle of the state (sort of) around the enormous power of the waterfalls there, which supported refineries for Butte minerals. It’s also a market town for the Golden Triangle (wheat). For a long time Billings and Great Falls tipped back and forth as the biggest cities in the state. Great Falls originally had a personality shaped by Paris Gibson, the founder, who believed in planting trees and in culture. But they are late to the party of book festivals. And Dutch elm disease has severely damaged the trees.

Nevertheless, Sue Hart -- a Billings academician and expert on Montana literature -- was able to name off a community of fine writers who once clustered around Great Falls: Joseph Kinsey Howard, Mildred Walker, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., and so on. They were not academic (often journalists) and maybe one of the reasons they finally dispersed was that there is no state university in Great Falls. The base for the Festival of the Book is not a school but the library. Great Falls used to have one of the best libraries in the state, but has become a mere shell of its former self, replacing a fine collection of books with computers and rocking chairs (I kid you not!) at the study tables.

Maybe not everyone is aware that states usually have two universities: one dedicated to the humanities (Missoula) and one dedicated to agriculture (Bozeman). In Montana there are three other significant colleges: Havre, which tends to be vocational but sustained Mary Clearman Blew; Dillon, which educates teachers; and Montana State University-Billings which is close enough to Bozeman to at least share a public radio station. Butte has a highly respected engineering and geology school. The tribal community colleges are still wild cards.

There are two sort of “proto-universities” in Great Falls -- one the religiously run College of Great Falls and the other a technical school. Both focus on older students and have a shortage of dormitories since most people live at home. The dominating presences in town, now that the smelter and railroad have closed down, is Malmstrom Air Force Base with its associated missions, and the medical community, currently engaged in a very unseemly food fight over who gets to be a monopoly. Soldiers and doctors are not the humanities-appreciators they used to be. At one time they were the backbone of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

The librarian assigned to create and administer the Festival of the Book is a soft-spoken woman of considerable dedication. She thought that this time it would draw an audience to explore the relationships between book and movie. It was not her fault that the weather was at its most glorious and that the conference was in the basement.

First up was Norma Ashby, who clearly knows more movie stars than anyone else in town because for many years she hosted a local interview program and because she has always been in the forefront with the Ad Club and their famous CMR birthday auction. She can tell some pretty wild tales, like the time a rattlesnake handler was being interviewed, brought out a pregnant rattler, and suddenly slit her up the belly, releasing venomous baby rattlers all over the studio. Her book is “Movie Stars and Rattlesnakes.”

A formal reception and reading featured Janet Muirhead Hill, who has her own publishing business and writes therapeutic books for kids; Marcus Stevens, best-known recently for his two books (“Useful Girl” and “The Curve of the World”) but also an active filmer of commercials; and Annick Smith, probably best known for producing “Heartland,” but also a writer and a major supporter of literature in the Missoula community.

I’m a one-day attender of most everything because I hate being gone overnight, so I was there only on Saturday when Sue Hart showed her fine DVD of Dorothy Johnson, a woman who was both an academic and journalistic writer, and who became a much beloved author in the golden days of magazine short stories. Several of her stories were made into smash hit movies: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “A Man Called Horse,” and “The Hangiing Tree.” She was kissed by a few movie stars, too! Sue knew her personally and has captured her spirit both warmly and extensively with many stories and photos. In fact, that’s what I really went to the Festival to see. $14.95 to buy the DVD: Gravel in her Gut and Spit in her Eye.” (Norma Ashby is right -- we don’t advertise our works enough.)

A discussion about movies and books was moderated by Sue Hart with Annick, her son Andrew, Marcus, and Janet offering opinions. Our strongest opinion was MORE, MORE, MORE!!!

Ted Geoghegan spoke about writing horror films, but I missed that because of a long lunch and because ordinary life these days is horrible enough.

Then Andrew Smith, who is a twin (brother Alex) told us about filming “The Slaughter Rule” which has won prizes and excellent reviews. The movie is about a boy growing up and facing a (yes) horrible life, through the medium of 6-man football. Not my milieu, but definitely my place -- filmed mostly in Choteau and Heart Butte, both of which I can see from here. (Well, I can see the part of the Rockies they are on the east side of.) David Morse is a damaged man who insists on coaching -- maybe for the wrong reasons -- and the boy is played by Ryan Gosling who faces the death of his father, more-or-less desertion by his sleep-around stewardess mother, a first and failed love affair, racism, and bad weather. (Bad weather is a serious matter here.)

No need to tell you more than that. The movie has a website: and you can buy the DVD commercially.

The consensus of the writers and directors, plus some of the audience, is that the commercial values of studios and producers (greed-heads) have overtaken and are crushing what should be far more creative and accessible. As Andrew put it, “Producers think that when they call a meeting and throw around a few wild ideas based on what has already succeeded in the past, they are working. But in fact they are doing NOTHING. The WORK is done by someone who sits down and word-by-word, scene-by-scene makes the story real.” This was greeted with cries of recognition and cheering.

Well, heck, that’s the way we do war these days, too. So why weren’t there Malmstrom people sitting in the room listening?