Tuesday, October 31, 2006


According to SBpoet.com, the moon is “waxing gibbous,” which is to say 75% full. After a cloudy day, the sky is clear, which means that the heat will be radiating off the snow and out into space. (SB has posted a little purple bat for you to play with -- watch out, it has fangs!) According to the thermometer outside the bathroom window, it’s twenty degrees. According to the National Weather Service the low in Valier tonight will be four degrees. Combine cold with dry and you’ve got snow that is sublimating (going straight to unseen air vapor) rather than melting. It looks more like movie snow, that foam they use to look like snow which has round edges. I’ve been keeping the house at sixty. The cats have been staying on the new electric mattress pad. They promised not to use their claws, but anyway they’re on top of the comforter.

Tonight so far the best costumes were two twin boys who came as dice! There have only been a few kids -- no really little ones because it’s too cold for the parents to walk them around. A pickup pulls up, a couple of kids tumble out -- once it was only one little girl -- the kid comes to the door, gets the hand-out (breakfast bars -- not the gooey ones, the oaty ones -- that keeps the teenagers away), hurries back to the pickup and is barely in before the truck is rolling. The Eagle Speaker kids walked but they’re half-Navajo/half-Blackfeet, a hardy bunch, and they only live a block away.

Yesterday a dog came to the door and wanted to come in. I know the dog. It lives on the west edge of town, but as far as I know it’s never been here before. I told him, “Bad dog -- go home!” but it didn’t register. He said in dog, “Aw, c’mon! You’ll like me!” Crackers said something that can’t be put in a family blog.

Then there was a steady procession of political people. The Conrad Burns people were sheepish when I cussed. A radio program told about a carefully researched plan for a truly scary haunted house, based on psychological surveys and so on -- it made walls fall in on people and rats scurry around their feet. They even pumped in rat smell. They said one of the scariest things for adults is a clown. Conrad Burns has become a clown.

I hope no one thinks he was educated in Montana and that he speaks the way Montanans speak. In fact, he grew up in Missouri and came up here as an auctioneer. He’s always been cheerful about bribing the state with money for bridges or Malmstrom or whatever will bring in the votes. But he’s never been so obviously bribed himself. I’ve always wondered about Conrad Burns’ staff, which seems to operate somehow on the other side of a glass wall from Conrad. He never quite knows what they’re up to. My theory about recent history is that Conrad is old and sick, but his staff is not. The staff needs their jobs so they make it impossible for Conrad to quit by making sure he has lots of money and perqs.

All these hoof-in-mouth blunders that he makes, slurring people in a way he knows perfectly well not to -- even firefighters, for gosh sakes! -- is his subconscious trying to get him outta there. Something similar with Cheney. Even Bush. You can’t tell me that George and Laura Bush, as human individuals, want those jobs. I think they are screaming to escape in two years. What a horror show, to know what REALLY goes on! But too many people need them there. “Bush” is not a family -- it’s an international corporation.

My last caller before dark was a big man in bib overalls, rosy with cold from working to clean the sewers. These sewers have been scrubbed by a water pressure head crawling at the head of a hose all week, block by block. A camera watches from the other end of the block to make sure it’s not blasting out the side of the sewer, which is only crockery tiles a hundred years old.

A very scary thing is going to happen tomorrow. The man came to tell me not to use any drains or the toilet from 9AM to 5PM because they’re going to try to install the slip-lining for the main trunk of the Valier sewer, which goes in front of my house. This slip-liner is a soft hose that will be “slipped” through flat, then inflated, then heated to harden it and make the lining. No one knows whether it will really work or what it will do to the connections that feed in from our houses. I still don’t know how they will allow the connections to connect to the main line. Have they precut holes? Everyone is quite vague. But if I have to replace my own sewer line, it may cost as much as $1,000.

I’ll close with a nifty little story from Jim Stebbings:

Two men were walking home after a Halloween party and decided to take a shortcut through the cemetery just for laughs. Right in the middle of the cemetery, they were startled by a tap-tap-tapping noise coming from the misty shadows.

Trembling with fear, they found an old man with a hammer and chisel, chipping away at one of the headstones.

"Holy cow, Mister," one of them said after catching his breath, "You scared us half to death. We thought you were a ghost! What are you doing working here so late at night"?

"Those fools!" the old man grumbled. "They misspelled my name!"

Every author’s biggest fear!

Monday, October 30, 2006


This weekend I had a “comment” deleted from a posting -- by a system administrator. I never saw the comment so I don’t know whether it was libelous, obscene, unreadable, or what. (It was about the posting on Jonestown.) What’s rather more concerning is that I had no idea that “administrators” were reading what I wrote -- Dick Cheney excepted, of course. I don’t know what formula triggered a look at what I said: mentioning the FBI, using a dirty word, or maybe just writing about Jonestown.

I did write about the Hungarian Revolution and got a very nice comment from a blogger actually IN Hungary: “Dumneazu, Ethnomusicological Eating East of Everywhere,” with actual photos of this year’s demonstrations and a description of how avidly young people wanted to bring back the excitement and romantic force of those times. But last night when I tried to communicate, everything went berzonkers and tangled up. (“An engineer has been called!” it said. I guess that’s reassuring.) I wondered if the Warsaw comment would still be there today, and it was.

On this blog I’ve been a little bold about risking (while always keeping a fallback position) but the gunfire I expected was late in coming, partly because of a shortage of computer sharpshooters, I guess. Last winter I posted the chapters of a book I wrote called “Heartbreak Butte,” which is about starting the first Blackfeet high school there in 1979, a move that essentially gave Valier High School a major wound since so many Heart Butte kids bussed out to high school here. (I’m in Valier now. In Montana, schools get state money per capita of students. In Heart Butte the school is on the reservation and therefore has access to federal money that replaces state taxes. Both schools receive compensatory federal money from various programs.)

People who write about teaching Indians, including experts like Jon Reyhner who was an administrator in Heart Butte long ago, tend to deal only with elementary school kids. High school kids are another whole deal: sex, drugs, violence and rock n’ roll. New administrators every year, even the Indian ones. Some teachers stick and do the real work. One lives in a teacherage.

I told it like I saw it, which I knew would offend some people because Heart Butte is a nearly hidden community, the descendents of full-bloods and refugee Metis from the Canadian Red River revolt. Their safety has been dependent on being passed over, while their isolation has been guaranteed by gumbo roads that prevented access much of the year. But now the roads are paved, the village is much expanded -- really a satellite agency in some ways -- and having a high school means basketball, which means people pouring in and out. But I always remember one boy who shouted, "I forbid you to look at me or even to think about me!"

Criticism came in comments only recently. One boy read a part in which I talked about the uses of telling stories to set moral boundaries. I knew about some disreputable people who were stealing food and money from their elders. So, in the old Blackfeet way, I told about ancient “Eskimo” times when the small family band would be so starved that they would have to eat the grandmother in order to preserve the children until times were better. I said it was not very different to steal food and money from the elderly today. It might not have been a perfect comparison, but it seemed to get the point across.

This so horrified one young man that he wrote to rebuke me, jumping to the idea that I said the Blackfeet were cannibals. More recently he recruited another older man, a politician, to again send me a comment objecting to such a terrible accusations and adding a lot of embellishments. Then that man went to another, even more senior man (he was in high school when I came here in 1961), who occasionally publishes books about Indian ways. This man was more inclined to understand that the previous complainants were clutching false accusations to their chests. But I’m getting tired of explaining over and over, so I’m deleting “Heartbreak Butte.”

I’ll edit it (it’s a little out-of-date now) and make it available as a book on Lulu.com. I nearly sold it to a publisher once. There were three anonymous reviews, as is customary. The first one said, “This is fantastic. We MUST publish it.” The second one said, “I don’t much like it, but I suppose we ought to publish it.” The third said, “This is a terrible book. There aren’t even any footnotes.” The Methodist minister had a printout of the manuscript and I think that copies of that have circulated to selected persons.

The upshot of all this is that I’m left with the unsettling sensation (which is probably accurate and maybe not a bad thing) of a presence watching over my shoulder (perhaps protective and perhaps not) and the growing conviction that today’s youngsters are yearning for the revolutions of the Fifties and Sixties with very little understanding of the causes or the prices people had to pay. (The president of Hungary was hanged.)

What’s even more weird is that many of the whites (expecially male) who are supportive of Indians today are really yearning for the Indian Wars of the Plains, suffering from “Dances with Wolves” syndrome, imagining themselves as salvific sympathizers. What Indians need today is excellent professional advice and guidance about political lobbying jackals, predatory financial instruments, and how to manage internal dissent in a democratic way. But it was so much more fun to pour red paint down George Washington’s face at Mt. Rushmore.

This week there was a little careless talk in email exchanges about “burning out Christians.” I mentioned it to a friend who immediately advised me to tell the Valier deputy sheriffs. I demurred, saying it was unlikely anyone would actually do such a thing, but Halloween is coming up, so I did send copies of the exchange to someone to keep just in case.

I keep trying to explain that Unitarians are not necessarily Christians or even theist. The thing to do with Unitarians is to burn a question mark on their lawn (old joke) but one should not (you know) tell kids not to put beans up their noses. Anyway, snow and cold have probably shut down Halloween fun.

But I’m wondering how any comment could be any more obscene than the spam I routinely get and simply ignore. Who would it potentially have offended? Shouldn’t I get a copy of whatever comment that administrator deleted?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

HUNGARY 1956 -- USA 2006

This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution when, in 1956, the citizens of the country rose up against Communist domination. I was a junior in high school with a brilliant history teacher, Carlie Gilstrap, who never married and was said to be an excellent pistol shot. (Not necessarily a relationship between the two characteristics.) She had a classroom with an old-fashioned windowless “book room” (this was in the days when teachers had real textbooks) big enough for the class to barely squeeze into, so one day when she was called to the office for a minute (in those days a teacher could leave a class without expecting mayhem to break out), we all crowded in there. When she returned to what seemed to be an empty classroom, she saw the situation in a flash and simply locked the door. We were in there until the end of the period.

She was a bold woman, protected by tenure, and she had us passionately convinced that we were witnessing history. I got up at 5AM every morning to hear what the Soviet tanks had done while we slept. The US and NATO had promised that if the Hungarians would rise up, the rest of the world would step in to help them. But they didn’t. In English class I learned by heart ee cummings’ poem, “Thanksgiving, 1956:”

a monstering horror swallows
this unworld me by you
as the god of our fathers' fathers bows
to a which that walks like a who

but the voice-with-a-smile-of-democracy
announces night & day
"all poor little peoples that want to be free
just trust in the u s a"

suddenly uprose hungary
and she gave a terrible cry
"no slave's unlife shall murder me
for i will freely die"

she cried so high thermopylae
heard her and marathon
and all prehuman history
and finally the UN

"be quiet little hungary
and do as your are bid
a good kind bear is angary
we fear for the quo pro quid"

uncle sam shrugs his pretty
pink shoulders you know how
and he twitches a liberal titty
and lisps "i'm busy right now"

so rah-rah-rah democracy
let's all be as thankful as hell
and bury the statue of liberty
(because it begins to smell)

I wonder if anyone has translated that to Spanish.

We’ve got a re-election campaign for a judge here on the High Line. I know this man two ways: one was as the person who presided over Bob’s probate and let all sorts of dubious things slide by and then later, when I appealed to him about Bob’s widow being held hostage and drunk, did nothing. The second is that I was on a jury at a civil trial over which he presided, allowing a local lawyer suffering from Alzheimer’s to wander all over the place, coached along by his legal aides who passed notes. (The other lawyer had wanted me on the jury because he was from Portland, a good Catholic, and assumed that because I was from Portland and former clergy, I would be conservative. Big mistake.)

The actual jury foreman was afraid to let the community know that he had been the foreman, for fear of retribution from the complainant, so I agreed to sign as foreman if he would actually do the job. Probably illegal as hell. But we did that, and then the good Catholic lawyer asked for a person-by-person vote instead of a majority consensus, which we didn’t know he could do, and someone changed his vote. In the sorting process, it came out both that I’d only pretended to be the foreman and that the actual foreman was afraid of retribution. The judge just looked glazed. The whole thing was appealed anyway.

But ever since I’ve been thinking about this huge crack in the democratic system: it depends on the character of the citizens. I mean, I moved back here into a house I owned, with social security, a small but secure income after having being fired from several jobs around here because of what I had said about the system, the boss. I had thought I was coming back bravely, to tell the truth and witness boldly. But now this judge is up for re-election and I’m wondering whether it’s safe to state my opinion in a letter to the editor. What if I come up before him in court? What if a friend of mine or a former student of mine comes before him in court and is punished because of what I say?

This judge probably threw himself out of office with a decision last year. A sexual predator committed really terrible acts, was a habitual offender, but a friend of the right people (some folks in that town don’t think of sexual predation as much of a crime anyway), and was let out with a low bond on his own recognizance. As it turned out, the victim and the neighbors also had good connections and came down on the judge so hard that he reconsidered and threw the guy in jail. In other words, this is a judge who just goes with the flow. (All parties concerned are white, I hasten to say.) I’m told that he hasn’t got a chance of keeping his office.

So maybe I can just let him go down in flames without throwing my match on the bonfire. Or maybe it’s safe to kick him now that he's down, but that seems like a chicken thing to do. On the other hand, if I keep my powder dry, maybe there will be an even more crucial test down the road.

This is the second judge to be in big trouble around here. The other one spoke carelessly on email -- dirty, cynical comments -- and has been sentencing people to jail for not paying their debts, calling it “contempt of court” because they were ordered to pay in trials. In other words, he has recreated the “debtor’s prisons” of Dickens’ day.

So back to Hungary, where in 1956 the Soviets read everyone’s mail for the sake of state security and tortured or banished people to gulags for the safety of the system. On NPR the other day was a story about a man setting up a display about the Hungarian Revolution in a public place. He was just stepping back to check it when along came a little group of young people, maybe juniors in high school, who looked, as kids do these days, rather sinister. Leather jackets, punk haircuts, chains, tattoes, piercings, etc. The man’s impulse was to protect his display, so he stepped towards them.

They were actually looking closely and reading the captions. He introduced himself and they had a question: “Who won, Russia or Hungary?” The man started to say Russia, but then corrected himself. “Hungary. It just took us fifty years.”

I like his answer, but what’s happened to ME in the last fifty years that I’m afraid to speak up? Of course, a few newspapers around here won’t print my letters anymore anyway. How long before the blogs get shut down?

Friday, October 27, 2006


As I read the stories about more bones from the 9/11 victims, now fragments mixed with earth and stone, I keep thinking about the bones of Blackfeet which I used to come upon on the prairie, mixed with fragments of buffalo bones. Old holocausts with modern consequences. The testimony below comes to my blog from a reader who lives in a major city, working for a nonprofit that helps many people. She is not inexperienced or helpless. Facing and mourning the past isn't over yet. Despite the anguish she has not shirked and she has turned her feelings into good for others.


I am presently reading a book, "The Lost, The Search for Six of Six Million."  This book resonates with me so much that I am savoring every chapter and stopping after each one to contemplate how the story aligns with my own.  The author has searched out the story of what happened to his grandfather's brother and his family in eastern Poland during the Holocaust.  Having gone to Lithuania to the shetl that my great grandparents came from and from which part of her family were taken and we presume murdered, I could truly relate to his tale.  The passages of horrible cruelty and torture prior to murder are some of the most difficult I have ever read and I have read a lot of Holocaust literature and visited museums and sites in Eastern Europe.  Actually, though my similar trips to Browning to find out about my dad's family and history proved to be emotionally difficult too.

When the author of “The Lost” is in the little town in Poland where his family lived for 300 years, at one point he feels so overwhelmed by emotion that he must leave to gain some perspective.  The same thing happened to me when I was at the BIA building on Highway 89 in Browning that houses all of the allotment records for the Blackfeet Reservation.  I had to get some higher-up's permission to access my grandfather's file.  It took some hours and a lot of persuading to do so.  I was finally allowed access to the file and put into an empty conference room to review it.  There I found the original letters from my father written in 1963 asking for information about his past.  I had thought those letters were lost forever and had been thinking of them for 40 years.
I do very vividly remember the response he received to his letters.  He was sent a copy of the transcript of a court proceeding in which his mother was questioned on the witness stand about her children by X.  This was many years after X died (almost 9) and I now know was to settle his estate.  On the stand his mother testified that she had two children while married to X, both girls.  No mention was made of my father, who by this time had been given up for what she thought was adoption to Dr. and Mrs. W, a doctor in Browning. 

I am sure the person who sent this document to my father had no idea of the repercussions this would have in not only his life, but the life of his entire family.  This total negation of his entire existence was the final rejection from a mother from whom he had felt the rejection of abandonment his whole life.  There is a direct line from the receipt of that document to my father's suicide by self-inflicted gunshot (He greatly admired Ernest Hemingway.) while talking to my mother on the telephone after she had left him because of his alcoholism, the final abandonment from which he could not recover. 

However, when I reviewed this file I found along with this court transcript a letter from my grandmother in her own handwriting written shortly after my father's birth on February 19, 1911, informing the BIA of his birth and attempting to have him registered as the son of X.  Along with that letter was a letter from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police about X's arrest and subsequent imprisonment for stealing a horse from his uncle, an Indian named Tying Belt, on the Blood Reserve in Canada.  For some reason my father's birth was not recorded and he did not receive an allotment, as did his two sisters.  A copy of this letter written by his mother was never sent to my father, who always after said he didn't know if he was a bastard or a half-breed, but neither was very welcome in white society in Montana in the early 1900's.
His foster family inexplicably changed his last name to Z, who it turns out was a white rancher his mother worked for at one time as a housekeeper.  If you had ever seen my father, his Indian blood was evident.  He looked very much like my X cousins and could not purchase alcohol when we lived in South Dakota in the early 1950's, when it was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians.

When I found that letter from my grandmother and realized the implications of it, I had to get out of that building because I thought I would suffocate.  I then had to flee west over the continental divide to the Flathead Valley before I could even begin to process what I had seen.
Some of this is why I built my home west of the divide even though my cousin, V, offered to let me build a home on some of the family property.  While I love to be there and spend time with family and meet the ever-increasing number of distant cousins I seem to have, I also sometimes need to get away to process the terrible sadness that hovered over my beloved father's life.
I want to scream at him, "Why didn't you wait for me to help you find the answers and everyone!"  Because there is family that would have welcomed him and he was not as alone as I am sure he felt the morning of December 4, 1970, when he decided the pain was too great.
My grandmother's second husband (my father's stepfather) had been cruel in the extreme to my father, beating him unmercifully according to my dad.  In fact, he told me that his mother told him to run away to save himself.  Another instance of a woman picking a man over her children, which you seem to hear over and over again.  I have since heard many stories about his stepfather's drunken tirades throughout his life and the fact that my grandmother used to hide in the attic when he brought his drinking buddies to their then-home in White Center near Seattle. 

I did do one last thing for my father.  When I finally found where my grandmother and her second husband were buried, I visited his grave in a nearly forgotten old Norwegian cemetery in an old section of Seattle and spit on it twice, once for my dad and once for me.  That act did not really give me any peace about what had happened, but it was something I had promised myself I would do since I began to look in 1971.  I had a cousin with me who is descended from that guy and it was he who took me.  I sent him for the car with the excuse that I could walk to longer so that he didn't have to witness my act of disdain for his grandfather, though he did know the story.

Finding all of that family has been the most rewarding part of my genealogical research.  It was changed my life in immeasurable ways and made me absolutely sure of who I am, though it is a real mismash of ancestry:  English, Jewish from Lithuania, Blackfeet Indian, German.  I guess a typical American.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


by Keila Szpaller, Great Falls Tribune staff writer

Julie Laverdure celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary the day before she died. The Cut Bank woman loved children, old folks and animals. She loved her husband, Richie Laverdure. “She married a really good boy,” said her father, Bryan Kimmet. The two did everything together, he said. They were together Monday afternoon in an accident that killed Julie. “That little girl is going to be missed,” said Kimmet. “She was just a ray of sunshine.”

Monday afternoon around 4:30 PM, the couple’s pickup rolled off a rim [cliff] west of Ethridge, said Toole County Coroner Dan Whitted. They had been hunting. They rolled the pickup end over end at a point where the road appears to continue through a field. Instead, though, it drops off. There, near Longcake Road, the landscape creates an optical illusion that deceived Rick Laverdure, who was driving, Whitted said. The truck fell 160 feet. Julie Laverdure, 21, died at the scene. She was not wearing a seat belt, according to the coroner. A helicopter flew Rick Laverdure to Benefis Heathcare. He was released Tuesday.

“It was just a tragic accident,” Whitted said, adding that alcohol was not involved.

Tuesday over the phone Kimmet talked about the couple. He said his daughter was a beautiful, blue-eyed princess. He said Richie is just like a son. The Laverdures were high school sweethearts who married a year ago. Richie was good to Julie. She’d wanted a pet pig since she was 2 or 3 years old. About two months ago, he got her two piggies. Kimmet said. He said Julie touched a lot of people’s lives. “She’s going to be missed by everybody that she’s ever touched,” he said.

While he called her his princess, he said his daughter wasn’t afraid to work. She and her husband fixed fences together. “She worked on the farm with the rest of the family for years,” Kimmet said.

And she was just weeks away from being a full-fledged teacher. Julie was student teaching in Shelby and would have completed her teaching degree from Rocky Mountain College in Billings in December, he said. A couple of weeks ago, she brought some first-graders to her parents’ farm to see big machinery. “The kids wanted to go into an empty grain bin and holler,” Kimmet said. He said that she made those kids laugh, but her affection was not limited to children. “She loved young and old,” he said.

When she left Cut Bank to go to school, she couldn’t wait to get back. She missed the people and she missed her relatives. “We’re a tight family,” Kimmet said. Julie Laverdure leaves her mother, Cindy Kimmet, two siblings and many other relatives.

Kimmet said he carries no blame against his son-in-law. Everything Richie Laverdure had he built and earned himself, Kimmet said. The crash was an accident, he said, though he doesn’t believe that Richie will see it that way.

“That poor kid,” he said.


When someone dies, everyone wants to speak well of them, but the pain and praise in the case of Julie Kimmet is not at all exaggerated. I was her English teacher for a few months several years ago, and -- believe me -- she was what her father says and more. Graceful, strong, intelligent, and energetic, she was so alive that her memory glows. She was beautiful in body and spirit, and so very vulnerable.

I clearly remember a conversation we had. I had assigned the class to write about their childhoods (which in high school they all felt they had left far behind) and was a little taken aback by the number who had nothing to remember but daycare. Julie was eloquent about her family and their ranch and how much she loved them. We talked about her yearning to marry as soon as possible and whether she ought to wait a little and how one knew it was true love anyway. She had no doubt about that last.

What persuaded me that she knew was that she told about being a colicky baby, the kind of crying baby who cannot be comforted and no one knows why, so that the crying wears on adults and sometimes makes them crazy. She said that her dad would come in after a long day of hard work and take her to his strong chest and walk with her until she was asleep, then sleep in his reclining chair with himself as her cradle. Their relationship continued to be like that, though he was never overprotective, never prevented her from risking and growing. She said Richie was just like that.

Young women like Julie don’t just happen. They are the product of strong families, just as her father says, and she would have passed on that ability to be loving, embracing, but not confining. She was part of something bigger than herself that is torn with pain now but capable of healing and inspiring others. Jenny and Jace have their own versions of the same qualities.

It pleases me to think of her as sleeping on God’s bosom until she’s ready for the next adventure. Tell those first graders that God is her cradle and she still gets to have pet piggies. Tell them that risk is a part of reaching out and that death is only a transformation for those who are really alive.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Since I’ve started a novel in which one of the main characters is a Blackfeet concert pianist who breaks his hand in a fistfight over his dad, so he can’t play the piano well enough to perform anymore. He reverts to “Indian music,” meaning singing and drumming. I needed a trope for “assimilation” and then the return to the early ways many younger (forties) Blackfeet have made. But what do I know about “Indian music?”

Praise Google, I raised a reference to “Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives” by Bruno Nettl. (1989: Kent State University Press.) This has turned out to be quite a wonderful book, and not just because it was exactly what I needed. It is clear, graceful, and tactful while never sparing sharp analysis. Some of his informants were a bit like Moliere’s Bourgeosie Gentilhomme who was astounded to discover he had been speaking prose. That is, they had been singing the way they were singing because that’s the way one properly sings! What else? Nettl knows what else and can explain it without making one feel like a dummy. (Enough books for dummies in the world!)

The list of his informants was reassuring: Tom Many-Guns, Mary Ground, Calvin Boy, Darryl Blackman, John Tatsey, Percy Bullchild, Pete Stabs-by-mistake and Earl Old Person. These were established interlocuters in the Sixties and some were part of our Bundle-keeping circle. I knew all but Pete and Percy. Earl is the only one I know is alive.

Nettl’s gentle and persistent teasing out of ideas impressed me much. He says, “I ordinarily would not say, ‘Okay, let’s do the Medicine Pipe Songs.’ Rather, ‘Would you like to start, or are there some things you want me to know first?’” Of course, the music IS the culture, at least in part, so Nettl gives us as clear a brief version of the tribe’s history as I’ve seen. His explanation of the old Blackfoot/Blackfeet quandary, which is quite a little test, is both clarifying and humorous.

Nettl knows that cultural flow is dynamic, changing and yet persistent. There is something like the Johari psychological window at work, the four panes of the window being: Things I know about me and that everyone else knows, things I know about me that no one else knows, things I don’t know about myself but everyone else knows, and things neither I nor anyone else knows about me.

Among his intriguing lists and categories is a continuum of songs:
1. Specific powerful group ceremonial songs like the Bundles.
2. Religious with significant social components.
3. Religious narrative songs that accompany stories.
4. Ceremonial and partly religious songs about warfare and death like scalp dances or songs of mourning. (Today there is much use of “honor songs.”)
5. Secular songs with religious elements, like songs of age grade societies.
6. Social song dances, like Grass Dance.
7. Secular and recreational songs, like the one that goes with Stick Game.
8. Informally recreational songs, like lullabies.
9. Personal informal singing like “walking songs” or “riding songs.”

Bob Scriver said that the first time he heard the song that goes with the big circle of men on horseback bringing the branches to put over the framework of the Sun Lodge, he was only a child, but it was so thrilling that he never forgot it. He could sing it. He had formal music training as well as teaching music in high school and wrote music based on Blackfeet themes. I have no idea where they’ve gone. When we painted the Badger Lodge, he had gathered the proper animals according to his dream, but our informants said they didn’t know the right songs for all of them. Overnight, Bob said he “caught” the missing songs, so we could go ahead with the ceremony. I think he was quite sincere.

McClintock speaks of the night camps in the 1900’s and how one could hear sweethearts riding double or just individuals walking, quietly singing those “walking” and “riding” songs as they moved over the prairie near the lodges. Nettl says few were recorded, but I yearn to hear them.

Another of his lists is perceptions that were agreed upon by varying consensus. Everyone agreed that the basic unit was a “song,” but they also thought white people had too many words. Some people would claim “this is my song,” and others might agree that a person could own a song, but disagree about whether that specific person actually owned that song. Some of the informants were so respected that the others, even if they didn’t have that information, would say it must be right. Others thought it was all a big fuss over something dead, gone, buried and best left alone.

There was disagreement on the supernatural aspect of the songs, ranging from believing that a song was efficacious and potent in another world to feeling (maybe like whites) that it was interesting and tribal, so should be respected, but not more than that.

When it came to a specific song, some would say, “Oh, yes. These are the right notes and words.” Or they might say, “Well, it’s the right form.” Or they might agree on the song but not agree on what it meant.

Nettl feels that the Blackfeet culture is nouns, not verbs like the seductive Hopi idea. He says that he was told about things, units, often enumerated, often in fours. (I think of Jimmie Welch the Senior speaking of listening to the old warriors in front of Sherburne’s -- this would have been in the Twenties so those men were probably born about 1850 or earlier. He said they would say, “There were six of us on that war party.” Then they would name the ones not there and point out the ones who were also sitting on the bench. They were just talking to each other, counting over the old days.) But Nettl suggests they didn’t making heirarchies, saying one thing was better than another. It was characteristic to attach a song to an activity or event, but once in a while a song would belong to a person, or sometimes was handed down through a family.

This only scratches the surface and isn’t recent enough to account for the huge amount of NA flute music, or someone like Jack Gladstone who merges several traditions, or ‘49’s which are a synthesis of pow-wow and country music that has LOTS of words, but words relevant to reservation life. And he doesn’t speak of my favorite: Ken Scabby Robe’s Blacklodge Singers and their pow-wow songs for kids based on Saturday morning cartoons. “Is it a bird? NO! Is it a plane? NO! Omigosh, it’s MIGHTY MOUSE!!

The falsetto, pulsing, in-the-head voices, almost always in unison with others, speak to my heart. Nettl gives three examples with music written out “white style.” In the context of the Iraqi war the words of the third are heart-breaking. It is sung to a sweetheart by a warrior leaving, “Woman, don’t worry about me. I’m coming back home. I’m going back home to eat berries.” Yes, sarvisberries, fresh off the bush or in a ceremonial soup. And nowadays the singer-warrior might be female.

Monday, October 23, 2006


In 1978, just about the time I was settled enough in Hyde Park to attend Meadville/Lombard seminary and the University of Chicago Div School that I had stopped being homesick -- and I really had NOT expected to be homesick -- Jonestown happened. If you don’t remember, Jim Jones had organized a church, the People’s Temple, in San Francisco that was very liberal and progressive, doing a lot of practical good things for people, then was accused of bad stuff, and left en masse almost overnight to the Guyannas, where they hacked a new utopian community out of the jungle. Then the rumors started up again, a congressman went to investigate, and the entire community of 900 -- the ENTIRE community -- was forced to commit suicide by drinking grape Koolaid laced with cyanide. Armed guards enforced the order, but some drank voluntarily, believing that Jim Jones would resurrect them the next day or at the very least they would awaken in Paradise.

The Hyde Park religious community was aghast. People at Meadville knew people who had died. The most heavyweight deep thinkers of the Div School were challenged to come up with theories. Don Browning, a pastoral ethicist who worked from the theories of Victor Turner, an anthropologist, turned to the idea of “liminality.” The “limen” is the theshold of a door. Turner felt that what happened in religious worship was that people mentally and emotionally stepped through a figurative or virtual door into a place where (like Alice through the Looking Glass) the rules were suspended enough to make changes in one’s view of the universe, to “re-frame” -- using another piece of handy psychological jargon. Turner proposed that after some time in that other place, that "wonder" land, people could step back over the limen into the real world -- refreshed, reformed, repenting, renewed, reborn. He also felt that something like this was possible with great art and with “deep” play. Some feel that falling in love is like this. Maybe really good psychoanalysis. It's a sort of architectural rendering of a subjective experience.

Browning felt that the people at Jonestown went over into that other world of ecstacy and possibility -- but never came back to the real world again. Think rock ‘n roll -- think drugs. Some have an insatiable taste for extremes of this kind of stuff, even now -- how about suicide bombers?

The next June I attended my first national Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Meeting, where the UU minister for San Francisco stood and testified about his guilt. A woman whose sister was part of the People’s Temple came to this UU minister and asked him to help her intervene to save her sister. No one would believe her, no one even believed what she said, anymore than people believed the first stories about the WWII Jewish holocaust. He also turned her away, thinking that the whole thing was farfetched and remembering that the People’s Temple and the UU Church were on pretty good terms. At one time Jim Jones had applied for admission to a UU seminary, but was turned down because he had no undergrad degree. (UU’s are proud of having a “learned” ministry. A rabbinical model.)

Now there is a new movie about “Jonestown.” Go to IMdb.com to track it. It’s only been screened in San Francisco and there are no firm arrangements for distribution. It’s not the first movie on the subject but it is documentary, with real footage, and includes the forty-some people who somehow managed to escape. Here-Now.com had an interview on the radio today (you could get it from their website). I was impressed at how calm and eloquent the people were -- they’ve been thinking about this for a long time and have mostly come to terms.

They said that at first it WAS working, it WAS a paradise, they WERE better off -- or so most of them thought. Many of the people were children. Then the whole thing just blew up in the face of Jim Jones’ perversion and paranoia. Think there are any lessons here? There was a recording of the people dying and Robin, the host, said she couldn’t bear to listen. She did, but only barely. How do we understand it if we don’t face it? I suppose the medical model is lancing a boil. The political model? Cleaning out corruption? Who ever wants to realize what’s been happening without our knowing? "Nice" people, that's who.

This was a Devil’s Version of Jesus’ message. It was a movement based on the misery of excluded, poverty-stricken, inadequately educated, racially marked people who were desperate enough to follow anyone -- who were promised redemption, promised that the least would be first. Some of us have been homesick because of relocating to a strange place, but some people are so sick of yearning for a home they can’t have that they don’t want to come back from through the mirror -- THIS side of the mirror is just as strange and rejecting. A society that punishes, ignores, rejects, and locks out such people is doomed, sooner or later.

So I don’t have to end this on such a dark note -- and I’m sure the Here-Now producers felt the same way -- there is a charity that distributes solar or crank-powered radios in Africa, especially to children who have been orphaned or have had limbs hacked off. It does for them roughly what my computer does for me -- throws open the whole planet. One announced proudly, “Now I know the head of the World Bank!” He’d listened to an interview with the man. I hope that man sees this movie about Jonestown and doesn’t turn his head away.

The UU’s have a little course for kids called “Why Do Bad Things Happen?” After ten versions of religious answers (your ancestors sinned, you sinned even if you didn’t mean to, God knows the answer and just isn’t telling you, you were a bad person in a former life, etc.) there is a lesson called “Why Do Good Things Happen?” All it takes is something so simple -- a crank-up radio for a kid in Africa! What a brilliant and salvific idea! Someone reframed, refreshed, reformed, repented, renewed, reborn -- brought it back over the limen or through the window and made it real. A little thing called Hope. You know, in the bottom of Pandora's box.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


The way it worked when I was growing up was that boys had to be soldiers and girls had to have babies. (It was the Forties. And it was in the Bible: the punishment for being thrown out of Eden.) If you couldn’t do either, you didn’t matter. You were expendable, an adjunct person. So my brothers went off to be Marines, which paid for their college, four years each but no combat and no callbacks. I went to college, partly on scholarship and partly thanks to my mother returning to teaching. My brothers thought I really got off easy, especially since I never had a baby. I’ve felt a little guilty about that, so I pay close attention to war. What if I’d been a boy?

Anyway, if you grew up in the Forties, war was the whole focus of virtue. I dearly loved Audie Murphy and wrote to him. He sent me a signed photo, or so it seemed. My family didn’t believe in shielding kids from war so we went to the newsreels, which were milder than the evening news on television now. But we understood what was going on. In my neighborhood we played less “cowboys and Indians” than just “guns.” Boys against the girls, crawling around houses, stairways, hedges. “You’re dead -- I got you.” “You did NOT!”

I watched the heart-breaking Russian war movies in about 1959. “Ballad of a Soldier,” “The Cranes Are Flying.” “Apocalypse Now” I saw one Sunday morning in Chicago while I was attending seminary. There was Reserve training that day, soldiers in the theatre and helicopters in the sky. Uncomfortable. “Platoon” I saw in Saskatoon while being interviewed for the Unitarian pulpit. A row of probably Ukrainian country boys sat behind me and every time the actors said, “fuck!” so did the boys. I have CDs of “Blackhawk Down,” “Jarhead,” and so on. I keep thinking I’ll have some major insight if I watch carefully.

Clint Eastwood’s big new movie is being reviewed now and compared to “Saving Private Ryan,” which I’ve just seen. A cheap video showed up at the local big box store. They say Eastwood’s “take the beach” scene is “better” than the one in “Private Ryan.” The reviewers are talking about special effects like the vistas of ships on the sea and the body parts. I suspect that one of the major insights is simply how confused and stunning such violence really is. Temporary deafness, temporary blindness, the inability to process what the senses are telling a person. The characters who die now don’t always do dramatic sudden drops of the head, much less give dramatic cries and twirl on one toe the way we used to do when we played “guns.” Their lights just go out. No one in there anymore. And nature is destroyed alongside the soldiers -- all those dead fish on the beach. The dead cow in “Saving Private Ryan,” the pariah dogs in “Blackhawk Down,” the horse in “Jarhead.”

What I liked best about “Saving Private Ryan” was that the hero was a high school English teacher. If anyone knows how to handle a bunch of young men preoccupied with sex, death and the meaning of existence, it’s bound to be a really good high school English teacher. Well, in the Forties the teacher was like that. Now they won’t let you teach real life.

A new phenomenon no one expected but is enough to make an English teacher’s day. Doonesbury is sponsoring a blog for soldiers:

I just spent an hour reading this stuff: terse, real, vivid, enlightening, and funny. Of course, it breaks your heart but you expect that. You don’t expect cranky old men who build bookshelves the RIGHT way so the thousands of books floating around can be sorted. You don’t expect several kinds of guilt, from the young man who survived Iraq and luckily has a Vietnam vet dad who also survived to be there for him. Or the female soldier who has a $100 bill pressed on her by a well-heeled businessman who knows his life is made possible by hers. As they say, the thought of impending death focusses the mind wonderfully.

No one can exactly predict what will happen in this country when these soldiers come back. Some of it will be pretty dark, the same as it was for the Vietnam vets living on the streets or in warehouses for crips or in prison for uncontrollable violence. And some of it might be a needed dose of reality. It’s not easy to figure out how to provide what these people are going to need. In the meantime the least we can do is read what they write. I hope some of them turn out to be high school English teachers who are allowed to teach real life.

Words are still more powerful than movies.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


When I discovered science-fiction about 1950 or so, science-fiction was just discovering itself. My first taste was Heinlein’s “Red Planet Earth,” which clearly impressed George Lucas quite a bit -- it surfaces in “Star Wars.” For instance, there’s a lot of echo between R2D2 and Willis, the furry basketball with the hidden capacities of a Swiss army knife. For Darrell Kipp “Stranger in a Strange Land” was and remains an accurate description of what it means to be Blackfeet.

No doubt science fiction of that kind was prompted by awareness of other cultures, heightened by warfare, anthropology, art and psychoanalysts. It was the Korean War and we found our opponents entirely too inscrutable. We thought about “brain-washing” and the loss of identity. At home we all tried to be the good God-fearing, hard-working citizens who deserved to win WWII, but around the edges we were aware that there was much we didn’t understand. More frightening, maybe some things that were totally beyond understanding. Sci-fi was a narrative way of doing philosophy about the nature of reality. I suppose it has roots in Gulliver’s Travels -- hard to avoid the satirical element.

Such strong currents in a culture don’t just go away. They go deeper and transform. I’m thinking about this issue because of the great wave of political books we’ve just had, and how they have suddenly been replaced by religious books. This is not the opening up to Eastern religions of the Aquarian Age which seems to have regularized now, safely anchored in ashrams and public personalities.

Now we must understand Islam, our alien sibling, one that is far more dangerous because it is more like us, raised in the same household but the one who took after the other parent, not the parent who sheltered and nourished us. This discussion is not going to be outside the God-box, not going to be distracted by nonsense about a Mother-god. We’re not talking about God-is-love. We’re talking about Big-Time, Father, I’m-the-Decider God, partly because this is clearly what the Bushes have been about. (Interesting that Bush the Sister/Daughter has now written a sort of marginal or bridge book.) There’s something psychoanalytical in here about whether Barbara Bush isn’t the real “father” of George II, but I think I’ll leave that alone.

Still, it does hint at the question that seems to be obsessing many blogs and books: IS THERE ANY GOD AT ALL? This doesn’t allow for any Buddhist double-talk about whether there is existence. In Jim Holt’s review of Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” in the October 22 issue of the NYTimes Book Review, he uses the Tillich-ian phrase “the ground of being” in passing, without even quotes, as though it were just another description of God with no meaning, knocking aside Tillich’s ingenious solution to Being/Not Being by inventing a pre-existing “ground” that includes both. These guys are not to be distracted. Okay, they’ll accept the Big Bang, but what was before THAT?

Neither will they accept personal, subjective, emotional perception of God. They demand to know whether this “God” who has supposedly been underpinning our very nation is just a delusion and, if not, why the hell have we been deluded into believing Him? And if He’s not there, what is any of it worth anyway? They seem a little jealous of the Islamic certitude that Allah IS there.

These writers need to have read more sci-fi. They don’t have a lot of imagination about alternatives, which is why I appreciate Dawkins saying his book is “to raise consciousness.” Can there be a better use of religious OR scientific thought? Holt does a bit of straw-man reasoning, summarizing what he thinks Dawkins is saying and then knocking his lists down. He claims it all goes back to Bertrand Russell, who had a HUGE impact on my father, who never really converted his agricultural education (poetic and romantic) to a scientific world-view -- which left him needing the discipline of my “contentious Presbyterian” mother. He always had questions sticking out over the edge of his beliefs.

One of Dawkins/Holt’s wisecracks that I appreciated was that “there are very few atheists in prisons” (D.) to which Holt adds, “even fewer Unitarians, I’d wager.” Holt seems to have the idea that Unitarians are A-theists, in the sense of ANTI-theists rather than NON-theists. (One can play with this pattern quite a bit. I like PAN-theism, but since people seem to think that has something to do with Greek mythology and talking rocks, I like OMNI-theism even more: existence saturated with an immanent “god.”) But they are never terms that will get you out of the God Box. (Classic Unitarians had no quarrel with God -- they questioned the divinity of Jesus and the political formulation of the Trinity.)

Another Holt/Dawkins remark I like is the observation that “the biblical Yahweh is an ‘appalling role model.’” Not much of an improvement over Jupiter/Zeus. Vindictive, sexist, genocidal, violent. In fact, my big quarrel with fundamentalist Christians is that they are A-Jesus. They seem to totally ignore the New Testament and the Gospels, in spite of standing up to read them every Sunday. It’s as though they are unintentional Unitarians, rejecting Jesus as the New Word.

(On the other hand, I always chuckle when I remember some earnest Unitarian Sunday School teachers who were going to teach Bible stories. One of the tales turned out to be about rude kids who mocked a couple of prophets for being bald. The prophets caused bears to rush out of the woods and eat the kids. Wouldn’t Bush love to be able to call ravenous bears to come out of the woods? But maybe that’s what has happened in Iraq. It’s just that the bears turned out to be Islamic factions. They do eat the occasional journalist.)

Holt’s tie-off for his review made me giggle, as he quotes an authority my favorite PNWD Unitarian ministers used to love: “Peter De Vries’s 1958 comic novel ‘The Mackerel Plaza’: ‘It is the final proof of God’s omnipotentence that he need not exist in order to save us.’” Yes.

Bob Scriver used to say, “All you can do is the best you can do.” Yes. And it’s a helluva lot more than many of us are doing. We can do better than this for ourselves and others. If we just understood the others a little better.

Friday, October 20, 2006


This year the October snow came a little early -- several days ago. Usually it hits the last week of October, often around Halloween. (And the usual last snow in the spring is liable to interfere with the Easter Egg hunts.) But it was welcome, if only because my big cottonwood on the south needs water in order to complete its separation cycle with its leaves, so that they fall off instead of staying on dead all winter, depriving my house of needed sunshine.

The storm was not so bad as the one back east that tore down whole trees. I lost no major limbs, but I did lose many “flags” of twigs with green leaves on the ends, partly because of the snow and partly because of the vigorous and warming wind that removed the snow and set the branches to dancing. A tree prunes itself, I guess. The main branches, which extend out a long ways, had drooped until they formed a green tent around the trunk, touching the ground. In nature, a shelter. Over my driveway, an obstacle.

One main branch, which goes up in the center, is dead, silvered, because of lack of water.

In their native riparian zones (floodplains), Populus deltoides (prairie cottonwood) and P. fremontii (Fremont cottonwood) commonly experience substantial branch die-back. These trees occur in semi-arid areas of North America and unexpectedly given the dry regions, they are exceptionally vulnerable to xylem cavitation, drought-induced air embolism of xylem vessels. We propose that the vulnerability to cavitation and branch die-back are physiologically linked; drought-induced cavitation underlies branch die-back that reduces transpirational demand enabling the remaining shoot to maintain a favorable water balance. (From springerlink.com)

The tall evergreen next to it has spots of orange where it has sacrificed needles. A narrow balance between sparing town water and sparing my trees. The trees need occasional deep watering. Some locals are not sympathetic to cottonwoods, considering them “messy,” which they are. At least these two trees are far from my water line, so not likely to break into it to get their own drink.

But I’ll bet the poplars have designs. The poplars on the north side were bare before the storm. Even the stubborn green ash is skeletal. The wild plum in the backyard dropped most of its leaves during the snow. Much of the little tree is dead -- it must be pretty old -- and when the ground gets hard again (right now the legs of a ladder sink deeply into the softened ground) I’ll do some tree surgery. It’s running into the power line anyway. The infrastructure of nature is always trying to interrupt the infrastructure of human habitation.

At night it’s a little too cold to leave my bedroom window open, not so much because of the temperature as that the young rancher who lives in town across the street runs his diesel pickup a long time in the morning to warm it up, and the fumes come in my window.

These recent nights have not been so quiet as usual because of the sounds of the economy. That’s when the railroad spur by the grain elevators does a lot of switching back and forth to load up hopper cars, because if the string of cars is more than a few units long, it can’t help blocking the highway through town, at least temporarily. Not everyone who passes through Valier realizes that they can go around on dirt to cross the railroad farther West. So there are train sounds in the night: the big engine revving up, crashing hookups, whistle signals, even sometimes shouts between men.

On the other side of the highway is the Valier Stockman’s loading chute and corral complex. The main night sound from them is generally cattle bawling when penned overnight. Each cow must be inspected before shipping. They always go out in stock trucks, never on the railroad. I don’t know why. In the daytime, with ranchers hanging around, dogs in the backs of their pickups, lots of laughter, cows scrambling in and out of the trailers -- it’s an attractive scene for extroverts.

Insomniacs know that tanker trucks, carrying petro products, seem to travel at night. On the quietest nights one hears the 18-wheelers from miles away, wheel-roar getting louder and lower as the vehicle comes closer, the loud staccato stutter of “Jake brakes,” then the Doppler effect withdrawal. Early Jake brakes were invented by a guy named Jacobs and because his company was called Jacobs Brakes, it was quickly abbreviated into the kind of catchy rhyme that can’t help becoming a generic name. Much to Jacobs’ chagrin, since many people are not fond of that sound in the middle of the night and many towns are posted at the edge, “NO Jake Brakes!” Today Jacobs claims that THEIR brakes are relatively quiet and the imitators are the loud ones.

Jake brakes are invaluable on a big truck because they work by engine compression, sort of comparable to “gearing down,” rather than depending on wheel brakes that date back to wagon wheel blocks and are prone to wear or even failure. On mountain roads one is likely to see “runaway escapes” for trucks, branching off uphill so a driver could swerve onto them to stop, the ultimate recourse if your “Jake brakes” fail.

Fall here is much like winter in Portland where I grew up, so it throws me back into many sense memories. I grew up with a wood and coal furnace, so the locals who use wood provide incense. Wet leaves, though not the kind or color of Oregon leaves, are a familiar soft and slippery carpet underfoot. The tap of rain on window and the gurgle of gutters are lullabies. Wet cats want to warm themselves on my lap and stick their snouts under whatever I’m reading so they can judge what my response might be. Sitting in a pool of incandescent light (politically incorrect, I know), I’m not inclined to turn them away.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Zizi was exactly what a humane society education coordinator was supposed to be: blonde, pretty, smart, and upper-middle-class. Because she really was not so much an educator as a fund raiser, the idea was for her to be a cross between a Junior League museum docent and the primary school teacher you dearly loved. We got along great. She was not at all a snob, she had a high energy level and a wacky sense of humor. No doubt she is somewhere happily enjoying her grandkids by now.

There was another woman who worked with Zizi who was small, dark, and codependent. She LOVED the misery of it all, made it into a great romantic heath-swept tragedy. The more ghastly the animal case, the more she was fascinated. She specialized in dysfunctional boyfriends, often violent, and used to speak of the agonized ecstacy of the gazelle in the jaws of the lion. I expect she’s dead by now.

Humane societies have both a light side and a dark side and they are not usually so well-separated as the example above. For instance, some humane societies claim that they never kill animals -- but when one looks into it a bit further, it turns out that this is because they either don’t accept animals for which they have no space or shift their excess animals to shelters that DO kill animals, often animal control shelters supported by government taxes. They engage in this deception because they are afraid that if the public connects them to death, their donations will diminish. There is nothing so corrupting of nonprofits as the shift of focus from the ends to the means, namely preserving the institution that provides the jobs. If the real end is to stop pet overpopulation and to end cruelty, then achieving that end is literally self-destructive. The goal is to put themselves out of business, isn’t it?

The forces that generate too many puppies and too much cruelty are complex and cultural, as subtly powerful as those that empower gun ownership and drug addiction. At first glance they hardly seem dangerous. Consider the AKC, which I compare to the NRA, both for its enormous political clout and for its insidious promotion of myths, specifically that certain kinds of animal ownership confer certain kinds of prestige, that “breeds” are better than mutts, that pets are consumer objects. If the classified ads in your paper runs “free pets to be given away” across the page from “animals for sale” listing $400 purebred pups “with papers,” that is a pretty good illustration of the schizophrenia we have accepted without question except for a few faint voices now and then.

Anyway, Zizi had a radio program on the local high school station and our agreement was that if she couldn’t find anyone else to interview, I’d come on short notice. I had the same arrangement with a breakfast talk show hostess who broadcasted from a very nice restaurant. I made up a folder of subjects: “five ways to scoop your dog’s poop without making a total fool of yourself” was for Zizi’s show rather than the breakfast crowd. The programs were so short and superficial that there wasn’t much impact, but it did prompt reporters looking for longer stories and sometimes something good would come of it. Zizi let me sneak in some issues that were more animal control than humane society. Zizi did no in-house training, nor did she do research or development.

When Burgwin finally managed to get approval for an animal control education coordinator, we had to work though civil service. (Most animal educators are from humane societies, but sometimes the society has the contract to enforce animal laws.) It was a bit unusual, but a description of the job and criteria for hiring were necessary. I wrote them up, which was a little reflexive, and the results -- ahem -- seemed somehow to closely resemble me. The trouble was that after the tests (which I composed) and interviews were done, I came in second.

First place was a handsome young man who, like Zizi, was a person attractive and persuasive. One of the people on the hiring board was an AHA executive who just found me too unorthodox, frowsy, and, well, “uncommercial” to be effective. It wasn’t the knowledge that was the problem -- it was the image. Burgwin could hire anyone in the top three candidates and, after torturing me for a few days, he did hire me. But it was a strong lesson about our society based on appearances and commodification. It applies to ministers, doctors, teachers -- and dogs themselves.

Dog overpopulation was the main story then. I used to take around a big jar of dry beans. I’d put two out on the table. Dog parents. Two heats a year, assume four pups in each litter: in the next generation ten beans. Assume half female (five), two heats a year with four pups each: forty beans. In a few more generations I was weighing the beans rather than counting them. Then I’d separate out -- this many killed by cars, this many euthanized in shelters, this many dying of distemper, and still heaps of beans left. It was graphic enough that people sometimes gasped. But now dogs are much less of a problem -- now it’s cats, especially feral cats that don’t belong to anyone.

My favorite newspaper photo of me (after the one of me being swiped at by a lion, anyway) was taken when I was about to leave. I had bought a big silly stuffed dog to take around to elementary schools so I could demonstrate how kids should act so as not to get bitten. For the photographer I was joking and said, “Here’s how dogs look when they spot the dogcatcher! YIKES!” And I made the dog’s ears go straight up in the air. The photog loved it. The county officials in suits hated it. Any form of real education made them nervous. Anything funky. Anything that might suggest a loose cannon.

Modern humane societies, like many other modern do-gooder non-profits, would have fired me. Would never have hired me. They are like church denominations, trying desperately to have a unique enough message to bring in the money while never really being radical enough to separate themselves from conventional humane societies. The public never even registers that there’s more than one humane society or that they’re not government functions. HSUS, SPCA, AHA, PAWS, PETA -- all the same to the public. Our culture never blames humane societies, unless they have the animal control contract. So long as officers go out only on cruelty or rescue operations, all is calm. Have you seen the television show on Animal Planet?

There is one area where humane societies are vulnerable: the budget sheet. When the public sees what high salaries the executives get, they are horrified. Here’s where the “cute cuddly pet” syndrome comes home to roost. Only serious grownup people are supposed to get $100,000 a year, especially when the real work is often done by volunteers. (Governmental animal control is controlled by civil service and therefore public knowledge.) A friend sent me the address of a website that publishes the embarrassing budgets of humane societies. I went to the website and found it had been vandalized: all the high salaries were hacked off.

As the fellow lurking in the potted plant used to say, “Very interesting.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


The working title for my book about being an animal control officer in the Seventies is “Dog Catching in America.” The first part -- “dog catching” -- is inaccurate, of course, which is one of the points of the book, but the last part -- "in America" -- is meant to keep me reminded that animal issues are an excellent focus for learning about democracy. Most people with animal complaints are altogether too willing to just throw out orderly law enforcement in favor of summary and sometimes capital judgments by authority figures. It’s as if they wanted to go back to childhood when Mom or Dad would come to the yard and “settle things.” Hopefully, their way. Maybe this is one of the results of seeing animal control in terms of humane society illustrations of puppies and children.

One of the most vexed categories of complaints is that of noise, most usually dogs barking, though we had one complaint about a “Rocky Mountain Canary” (a donkey) that brayed constantly and loudly, giving the judge a chance to use a line he’d been saving since boyhood: “Mister, get your ass out of town by sundown!” Another was about guinea fowl (notoriously noisy and crotchety birds) released in a cemetary to be "watchbirds" by the caretaker who was tired of cleaning up after teenagers. The neighbors were soon claiming they preferred beer blasts to screaming guinea hens.

One old man kept complaining about a dog barking next door to him. Often owners will express surprise that their dog is noisy or will ask for advice about how to keep it quiet. This owner was a single woman who stoutly declared that the dog did NOT bark. Her neighbors agreed. The old man could not grasp the simple principle that makes the most trouble with barking complaints: there must be a witness. The officer can’t be a witness because the officer doesn’t live there and most dogs naturally bark when the officer comes around. Many complainants cannot get hold of the idea that they can order the officer to be a second-hand witness.

Another principle of democracy many complainants dodge is the right to be confronted by one’s accuser. They don’t want the dog owner to know who complained. In fact, if they had the social skills to manage neighborhood problems, they wouldn’t need the officer and our taxes would go down. So this old man balked at taking the dog owner next door to court. He just wanted me to “make” the dog stop. Finally I wore him down.

The woman who owned the dog was upset because she had to lose a day of work, but she came and brought neighbors with her who claimed they never heard the dog bark. She said it would be worth it to get the old man finally shut up.

Finally the old man took the stand. Instead of talking about the dog, he launched into a long and complex account of this woman’s life and how she had been abused by her ex-husband. The judge tried to interrupt, but the old man didn’t seem to hear him. It was a hot day with the windows open onto the street (Portland voters don’t like air-conditioning for public places.) and poisonous buses snorted past, just ten feet away on the street. The judge asked the old man how loud the dog’s barking was.

“Way too loud. Intolerable,” claimed the man.

“Louder than that bus?” asked the judge as another monster roared past.

“What bus?” innocently asked the deaf old man.

“Do you have a hearing problem?” demanded the judge, practically shouting.

“Oh, yes. I’m supposed to wear a hearing aid but I don’t like it.”

The judge dismissed the case. Later someone enlightened me that the long, complex tale he had told about the single woman was in fact the plot of a soap opera on television. Since it had subtitles for the deaf, it was one of the few worlds he could inhabit.

On another occasion a woman arrived in court to complain about a barking dog and seemed to dominate a little group of witnesses, all dressed as women used to dress after WWII, that is, with dresses and hats. Except her husband, of course. The dog owner was meek and apologized. The woman’s case seemed irrefutable, so the judge ordered the dog to be removed to a new home.

The woman leapt to her feet. “What? Only removed? I want that little devil killed!” She launched into a tirade that made it clear that she hated the dog and its owner as well and she intended to rid the world of them.

The judge sat amazed. Finally, he ordered her to sit down. “Madam, you are a vindictive and unreasonable person and a totally unreliable witness. I hereby rescind my order. Sir, you may keep your dog.” The woman began to object, but the judge added his own bit of personal testimony: “Madam, that is the ugliest hat I ever saw!” And with that taste of her own medicine, he left. The woman’s husband was grinning.

But our modern world doesn’t always lend itself to such simple verdicts. My mother moved into her little house in 1938 as a bride and lived there until her death in 1999. The neighborhood, which had been European immigrants who ran small shops and worked as craftsmen, drifted towards respectable black families and then down the economic scale as their children either succeeded and left or sank, pulling down the whole household. The conscientious family next door had a little girl when they moved in and my mother took care of her between school and the time her parents got home. But things went wrong. The little girl grew up to be alcoholic, an addict, a person always in trouble which she brought home, including a fetal alcohol syndrome daughter. The old folks passed away.

Down on my own economic luck in 1992, I spent eight months on my mother’s sofa. One day I heard terrible shrieking and rushed out to find the FAS little girl beating a puppy on her front porch. I tried to talk to her, but she grabbed the puppy and took it inside. My mother begged me not to make any complaints to authorities. She had had several go-rounds with the drunken mother in the past -- screaming terrible language, making awful threats. My mother was approaching ninety, suffering from blood cancer, and afraid of being burned out.

In a day or two, the mother next door threw the limp remains of the dead puppy out the back door so that it lay in the backyard, slowly decomposing over the winter. The family already had a social worker and a probation officer. Cruelty? Their lives were already as cruel as “bad choices” could make them. It was merciful that the pup died young.

Democracy and social networks fail us when trying to address chemically dehumanized people. Democracy assumes citizens who can make decisions. How they can make decisions about neighbors who seem less competent than their domestic animals is a major problem.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006


Another one of those mysteriously mutilated cows was found near the ranch of the Senior Citizen Center cook. She told me about it last week and I’ve been mulling it ever since. She said the cow was cut “on the back” and its ovaries and entire udder were “surgically removed.” Coyotes circled it, but didn’t touch the carcass. No autopsy results that she knew of. (There was another dead cow in the borrow pit on the way to Cut Bank that I passed the other day, but it was just road kill.)

Cows get killed all the time or just die on their own, but one cow can be worth plenty of money and bulls even more so. One rarely hears of mysteriously mutilated dead bulls. Cows near shooting ranges seem particularly endangered by shooters in vehicles, evidently seized by a mania to hit targets and a thirst for actual deaths. One might think that regular target ranges nearby would discourage the shooting of live creatures, which after all are not much of a challenge since they just stand there. It’s not a matter of hunting them -- they’re fenced.

My uncle, who ranched near Roseburg, OR, at the end of a road that turns to dirt and winds over the mountains to Diamond Lake, began to find dead cows with only one hind-quarter missing. Not consistently the same leg, but only one. Finally he was out in his pickup, his little dog hanging out the window over his arm, and heard a shot close enough by to get there while the culprit was still detaching the hind-quarter. It was a kid driving a Volkswagen beetle. He only took a hind-quarter because it was as much meat as he could get into his back seat. His mother ran a restaurant in Roseburg and they were using the meat for roast beef specials.

“Did you beat him up?” asked I, “Give him a damn good thrashing?”

“Oh, no! I don’t want to be in trouble with the law!” (He’d described how the law had been absolutely useless in terms of detecting this young cow killer and in fact he didn’t even press charges.)

“Did you shoot out his tires so he had to walk back to town?”

“Gosh, no! I wouldn’t do anything like that. It’s property destruction!” At least the kid was not stupid enough to do it again, even with such an accommodating rancher.

When times get hard, meat on the hoof disappears but usually after the cow has been killed. A few twisted people will shoot horses and leave them dying, much to the anguish of their owners and friends. There are always cat and dog shooters around. In livestock country it’s usually law that a dog harassing livestock can be shot if it’s caught in the act. And, of course, people shoot each other all the time.

At Multnomah County Animal Control I never did have to shoot dogs or coyotes either, but a part of our job was to distinguish between dog and coyote kills. Along the Columbia River and around the airport were many pastures and both animal kills and human rustling were not uncommon. In Oregon there is always mud, so we almost always had tracks to think about. It’s tougher on dry Montana prairie.

But we never had one of these mysterious mutilated cattle deaths which people always describe using the words “surgical precision,” “sexual organs,” and “no tracks whatsoever.” When I tried Googling some info, I brought up “The Cult of the Dead Cow,” and a lot of Halloween-type stuff. Nothing like lying in bed on a cold October night as the first snow begins to fall, considering the possibilities of cow mutilation. Thus I developed a theory which I delivered to the Senior Citizen Center cook today. (She was baking zucchini bread -- smelled great!)

Stealing a cow or even a calf in this country is bound to be noticed because people are so interested and knowledgable about cattle. But what if the culprits were after COW EGGS?? If they took the ovaries (sounds like a lot of work to me -- I don’t even know where a cow’s ovaries are, but wouldn’t it be likely that one would enter from the back?) maybe that’s what they were really after, not for strange rites but simply to fertilize in a petri dish with mail order bull sperm and then implant in another cow.

Rustle your cows while they’re still almost microscopic! Then you can take a lot in one “operation” and remove them discretely in a bucket of frozen nitrogen or something. Keep a herd of relatively cheap ordinary scrub cows, and let them miraculously give birth to top-of-the-line Angus! Take along the biological mother’s udder and then, if someone gets curious about the disparity in quality, do a switch on the DNA samples taken from the surrogate’s udder (Isn’t that where they’d get a sample?) and prove a match.

The cook, her helper, and the town clerk (whose office is just off the hall where seniors eat) didn’t scoff. They asked, “But who would do that? The government?” Which shows what a high opinion most people around here have of bureaucrats. I suggested more likely someone with access to remote land that no one checked often, running a seemingly ordinary herd.

The cook will circulate this idea and see if it flies. I told her that if I turned out to be right and if there were a reward, I’d split.

Too bad that drug-sniffing dog isn’t trained to smell cow eggs. The bit of Googling about “cattle mutilations” found they were often associated with mysterious black helicopters, which I myself have seen landing in our little airport. Homeland Security has checked out our local crop-duster, creating international news.

Nothing like a good conspiracy theory to keep a person warm. Lunch was ham balls. Sounds better than cow eggs.

Monday, October 16, 2006

ANIMAL CONTROL: Creatures Great and Small

Emergency responders (and not many people really think of animal control officers as emergency responders) go along the streets for most of the time with low-key duties, an opportunity to pick up information and skills while keeping disorder down to a dull roar, but now and then they are flung unexpectedly into life-threatening emergencies that may be entirely outside their experience and training.

Luckily, I left animal control before the popularity of pit bulls, but I’ve seen videotape of what can happen. An AC officer, a small young black woman, evidently down in the rural South, had a television cameraman with her as she went on her calls. She could not have expected that stopping at a tumbledown cabin with a slatternly big white woman would end up immortalized, stereotypes notwithstanding.

The woman sicced her pit bull on the officer. It leaped for the officer’s throat but couldn’t quite get that high, so tore chunks of flesh out of her breasts. The cameraman, who was a little slow realizing that the officer was in trouble, taped the attack, but then put down his camera and grabbed a club to beat the dog off. By that time the dog owner had completely lost control of her dog and the officer was in shock. What would be effective protection short of a gun or a suit of armor? I’m pretty sure the dog-owner was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, but strange things happen.

Nothing so dramatic ever happened to me. In fact, some days I didn’t even see loose dogs to impound and spent most of my time hanging warnings about barking dogs on the front doors of people who were not at home. One day I was sent to a house where the owners had tied their dog on a metal flex cable out front and then left. The dog had gone under the porch where it had wound under and over the support system until it was so tightly and complexly webbed that it couldn’t move and had become hysterical. Neighbors were gathered but none knew the dog owners or where they might be. A knife wouldn’t cut the cable and none of the neighbors seemed to have wire-cutters either.

Luckily there was a service station on the corner of the block and the operator “loaned” me wire-cutters for a $5 deposit. The dog was screaming, thrashing as much as it could move and thereby tightening the web. I would have to crawl in and cut the cable as close to the dog’s head as I could but it was trying to bite anything that came near it. I put my loop/pole over its head and slid under far enough to reach the cable, so close that my glasses were speckled with dog spit, but with the pole propped so the dog couldn’t slash my face when it was cut loose. Just as I was extended as far as I could and was barely able to get the cutters around the cable, I felt my wallet being gently slipped out of my hip pocket. Cutters went through wire, dog took off running, catch pole fell off, neighbors melted away ... no wallet. At least when I took the cutters back to the service station to redeem my deposit, I had lunch money. They also stole my beloved Ranger hat out of the pickup where I’d left it on the seat.

Sometimes I had a bad attitude. Once, visiting with a complainant on her front porch while her neighbor craned from next door to find out what she could, the woman asked me what happened to unclaimed dogs at the shelter. I made a graphic throat-cutting gesture. The neighbor stormed inside, outraged at my insensitivity and telephoned the powers-that-be to demand my immediate dismissal. I got a good lecture.

Another woman answered the door laughing. The street had been reported over and over as a hangout for loose dogs and I’d driven down it several times but never saw one dog. This woman had the explanation, since she could see the street from her kitchen window. She said that she would notice that all the dogs sprawled comfortably on the warm pavement would suddenly rise at once and move to their backyards. In a few moments my truck came by. Clearly they knew the sound of the motor and what it meant.

One dog would consistently run to meet the truck. I’d picked him up after a dog fight in which he was the loser. In the time we were waiting for the attention of the veterinarian I petted the dog, for lack of anything better to do, and talked to him. He considered us “bonded” and was overjoyed to see me. Anyway, for rural dogs, a surefire “catching” technique is to pull up alongside the dog, open the door and invite “wanna go for a ride?” They nearly always do.

Sometimes it was hard to figure out what the complainant’s problem was. A call complained of a “dead rat” in a certain intersection. I went and looked, but saw nothing. The next day the same complaint came back, so I checked more carefully -- under cars and along the gutters. The third time the complaint came through the mayor’s office. I took my garbage sack out into the intersection and walked back and forth over every inch. At last I found a very flat mouse. Feeling sure the complainant was watching from a nearby single-occupancy hotel, I mimed a great show of shock and dismay -- then elaborately put the postage-stamp-sized mouse in my big sack. That did the trick.

Another complainant had to go all the way to the top as well. It was a man who claimed there was a dead dog so shocking that he had thrown up and his wife had gone into hysterics. It was still out there, lying on the parking strip, and he could not bear to go near enough to cover it up. He had called it in, but days had gone by. His next call was going to be to the media.

The location turned out to be on one of the little short snippets of street nearly cut off from access by the freeway built through town and therefore nearly impossible to find, and the dead dog really was rather shocking. The dog had been run over from behind, which squeezed all its organs -- still arranged as they had been inside the dog -- out through its mouth so that they lay ahead of the dog. I still can’t understand quite how it happened.

The more dead animals resembled their live selves, the more disturbing they were. If they were completely scrambled, I didn’t find them very upsetting. If I had known the animal, I couldn’t help grieving. Once I “impounded” what must have been a puppy, but it was reduced to a round flat furry disc with one puppy foot sticking out the side. No one could ever have recognized the original animal.

One of the most difficult dog-identification incidents came after I was education coordinator. Oregon had a beloved governor with a troubled adult son who got into many very serious scrapes. One of the things that helped him stabilize was his childhood dog, now ancient but still faithful. Somehow the dog escaped. The governor’s wife, a gracious and admired person, came out to the shelter to see if we had impounded it. Carefully she went through the kennels and read through the descriptions of dogs people were holding at home, but she couldn’t find the dog. Her son was growing more distraught, she said, but he didn’t come along. She repeatedly visited over several days.

In the meantime we had impounded a nearly hairless, staggering and limping little old dog wearing a harness but with no tags or ID. Nearly blind, it was impounded standing patiently in front of a stone wall, evidently waiting for the wall to get out of the way. Since we assumed the dog had been hit by a car, it was put into a sick bay kennel. When it was unclaimed after the legal holding period, it was euthanized.

A shelter attendant, sorting out impoundment slips afterwards, had the collars and harnesses from the dogs on her desk. She had talked to the governor’s wife and with horror she recognized the description of the harness. The dog had been identified in terms of its youth, quite different from the dog we impounded, and the wife had not known there WAS a sick bay nor had she thought of her dog as sick. (The limp was arthritis.) It was a terrible mistake.

We talked about what to do -- should we tell the family? They would go on wishing and hoping for a long time if we didn’t. If we just kept quiet, no one would know. Except us. And we already felt awful -- keeping it to ourselves would just make us feel worse. So I called the governor’s wife. She was not gracious about it and I didn’t blame her. “I know how you must feel,” I offered.

“I assure you that you have no idea whatsoever,” she snapped. Of course, she was quite right.

Saturday, October 14, 2006


A couple of older men showed up at the last town council meeting, asking what the council was doing in the way of researching and planning to meet the constant need for water restrictions, since the town has by now blundered through half-a-dozen years of drought by saying, “Next year.” The results blossomed at this council meeting: some concrete efforts at research.

First, Roger the Water Man and Jackie the Clerk had designed and sent out a rather extensive questionnaire to every town they could think of that had similar size and situation: Belt (617 pop.), Big Sandy (656 pop.), Chester (818 pop.), Choteau (1,758 pop.), Circle (577 pop.), Conrad (2,638 pop and our county seat), Fairfield (641 pop.), Fort Benton (1,506 pop.) and Sunburst (362 pop.). The “everybody else does it” argument fell into the ditch on all sides. Big Sandy is in the lamentable position of drilling a new well that found no water. Circle found water at 1,450 feet. Belt and Valier are the only towns doing twice a year disinfection. The others do full-time.

Valier’s average yearly water use per capita is 96,840. (Based on a ten year average.) Compare with 218,880; 88,200; 41,760; 43,560; 60,480; 113,760; 83,520; 149,040. I spent a little time with Corky Evans considering what the variables might be and we thought of quite a few: size of households, extent of yards and gardens, etc. It appears that water meters are a good influence.

Depth of wells in Valier is about 100 feet (that’s the depth of the pumps). Other town’s wells are at 640/620 ft; 28 ft (Choteau, which is close to the mountains); 1,450ft. ; 28 to 60ft.; 45ft.; 350/350/187/180 ft. The seven wells at Fairfield, which are the ones from 28 to 60 ft. are shallow enough to have raised concerns about contamination from nitrate fertilizer and herbicide. Everyone but Belt and Fairfield is selling water to dryland farmers around them, which was once considered a way to pay for the system but is now beginning to look like a drain. Still, the existence of small ag towns is dependent on the surrounding ranchers and farmers. When they suffer, the town suffers.

If enough small ag towns suffer, the whole state suffers. Therefore, the state, through the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Ground-Water Assessment Program, created in 1991, collects data and posts it online constantly. “Mousing around” (more subversive than “horsing around”) reveals all sorts of things. For instance, we appear to be tapping into the Virgelle sandstone formation, about 200 feet deep and probably connected somehow to the same aquifer as the one feeding Giant Springs in Great Falls. Zowie!

Kurt Christiaens, Councilman, was inspired to reach out to these guys, who sent us Marvin R. Miller, Assistant Director for Contracts and Grants, Senior Research Hydrogeologist. He reminded me of my boss in Portland, the soils engineer at the head of the Site Development team of the Portland Bureau of Housing. Quiet, thoughtful fellow with a strong moral spine. Brunette, blue-eyed, handsome but not flirtatious. Geologists are more science-conscious than engineers. Miller (If I have the right fellow in mind) is a midwesterner. He didn’t recognize “Pondera,” the name of the county, as a corrupted version of “Pend d’oreille” -- French for earring, which is also the name of a tribe.

But he sat with interested parties patiently sorting out which well was where and swapped studies with Roger and Leo, the city workers who had raided their own files. Then they went out to take a GPS reading on each location, which ought to help match up likely aquifers that have GPS readings recorded in Butte. No deductions yet. There is some idea that the old wells might be plugged by biomass or silt and that lifting out the pumps, “blowing” them out or maybe drilling a bit deeper, might be low-cost ways of solving the problems. (This does not please pipeline fans.)

Now I’m going on a short side-bar excursion. I have two points to make. The first is the more important to the community. Like AIMster political Indians, citizens of Valier who are upset with the status quo tend to look for a human being to attack. They have been so unreasonable over irresolvable problems, ranging from national political quandaries like the economy to small complaints (usually about dusty streets or plugged up drainage), that no one wants to be on the council. There are no experienced older men willing to be called by outraged old women. The former handyman could hardly wait to leave town because HE took so much abuse over wallpaper that didn’t match or a remodeling that went $10 over the estimate. The two younger businessmen on the council grieve over the way people treat them -- “Why is it always us against them?” asked one.

I would suggest two reasons: one is that people feel so powerless (like Indians) and out of control that extremes seem justifed in hopes of jarring something loose. The other is that throwing a fit has become a part of the American character created somehow by child-raising practices that reward a child who raises hell and blames parents. (This has a lot to do with people not wanting to teach school anymore.)

The first time I saw grownups act like this was stark. It was a Unitarian General Assembly -- a religious annual meeting -- on a college campus. A guest in the cafeteria, a UU from back east, was so enraged by an error in the change he got that he threw change and tray of food on the floor. We thought maybe he had a brain tumor. Now, I doubt that anyone would be surprised. “Cafeteria rage.” We’d be relieved if no gun were involved.

Reaching out for information that is quantifiable and scientific is an excellent way to break up this game. Two factors interfere. One is the tendency to want to restore peace by papering over differences -- keep things vague (not on paper), just work it out as it happens, keep it quiet (secret), and discredit all complainers. Especially if one is financially involved in the decisions. The other is to turn on the hired help -- the two city employees.

In a town the size of Valier, no one can sneeze, have company, or neglect to mow the lawn without everyone knowing about it. And since many people around here do manual work with equipment, they have opinions about how long things should take, what they ought to cost, etc. etc. Any city employee has lots of kibbitzers. With a mayor who doesn’t act as a foreman, it’s hard for the employee to defend his or her self. By default, I see the clerk getting pressed into the role of foreman and monitor.

In the recent past our town water man attended water school, as he has for some years now in order to keep his certificate. (The survey showed that Belt currently has no certified water operator, a major problem since that can cut off subsidies, quite apart from water disasters.) Leo, the other employee, has been around a long time and has a lot of information acquired over the years, just from being there. This means that both employees are repositories of information with considerable value to the Town. Replacing them with new hires would lose that.

On the other hand, both men have been plagued with illness. Knobs at joints, tiredness, “flu.” In my paranoia I suspect chemicals. People here are very cavalier about spraying for weeds, for pests, etc. I don’t know how much we have been thinking about the job-related health issues these men and the summer high school help might develop. I don’t know of studies about cancer and neuropathy rates among small town residents, but I’m going to begin “mousing around.” In Saskatchewan all such information is the property of the province and kept secret.

In the past fifty years there has been a steady effort to persuade people to learn and use communication techniques, statistical methods, personal relationship principles, good citizenship, and so on. Now and then someone comes through but too many of us lean on our oars. Me included. Now I’m going to go clean out my gutters. It’s supposed to rain and snow in a few days, though it’s a brilliant clear day and politicians are out roaming the town.