Monday, June 30, 2008


The hot weather is upon us and I still don’t have my spring work on the yard caught up. I blame the mosquitoes, which mean it’s not comfortable to work outside when it’s cool. In the meantime I have so many things I want to do on the computer that I can’t keep up with that either. And there are many small things that got pushed over from the winter because it was too cold to paint or caulk, but are being urged on us by the need to prepare for next winter’s cold. They say to expect natural gas to cost 300% of what it cost last winter. Last winter’s bill was $130 a month.

I want to move furniture around quite radically, mostly because this house is sinking in the middle so I need to get bookcases to the outside walls. (Part of the trouble is structural and part of it is major truck traffic past the house up to the airport where there is an ag chem business. I also somewhat blame the floor furnace, which prevents me from closing the front room off from heat as well as putting weight in a doorway -- not a good idea structurally.) No money for shoring up the floor.

So I’m going to pull back from my self-assigned thousand words a day and blog on the same days as watering is allowed on my side of town. That’s Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday between 6AM and 10AM, so I'm up to move the sprinkler anyway. But if I get a brilliant idea, I won’t prevent myself from posting.

I need some time to improve my technical skills, like learning to do podcasts, and preparing better laid-out books for And I need to do a more serious job of promotion on those books. I’d like to prepare some workshop presentations for venues like Blackfeet Community College, since my purpose in doing these Blackfeet books is to pull in Blackfeet themselves and get them writing. So I need time to prepare materials before fall.

In the meantime, a simple decision to have an overdue mammogram has pitched me into a morass of phone calls, file searches, uncomprehending conversations, and etc. First, the Care Center 800-phone doesn’t ring. Not even the operator can hear anything. Second, the other phone is busy for an hour. Then it turns out to be the wrong number. The right number answers (after a phone labyrinth) and must pass me on to the radiologist but there are two kinds and she guessed the wrong one, so wait for transfer. An unintelligible fast talker answers. One cannot have a mammogram without the last previous one to compare with it. The last was more than a decade ago and in Portland. I must call.

I get someone in Portland (after another labyrinth) who instantly knows my name. (How does THAT happen??) I must fax permission. (No fax.) Can I email? No, they have no email. They don’t want to send to a PO Box but that’s how we get our mail in Valier. I must mail permission. Etc.

You know how it goes. By this time I feel as though I ought to get my head examined for ever wanting a mammogram in the first place. I move to a small town to simplify my life and the tentacles come reaching out, grabbing and groping, hoping to get more money out of me. There is no more money.

Surely this is the second Dark Ages.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


Every small town in this part of the world has its local “festival” which presumably is based on its identity: origins, economy, or product. Valier chooses to be “Homesteaders,” though much of the rest of the time they try to capitalize on the irrigation reservoir called “Lake Francis” to establish Valier as a fishing resort, from boats in summer or through ice in winter. (They put the fish IN and then catch the fish OUT. This is not fancy fly fishing.) Nothing could be farther apart than dryland homesteads, the most ascetic and risky of enterprises, and water-based resorts, which depend on people with time and money. Whether fishing or jet-skiing, water recreation is pretty pricey. This is gumbo country: no lolling on a sandy beach. However, we have an abundance of sun and wind.

The inevitable parade forms mostly in front of my house. The way one manages a parade is to assign the main street to the floats because they are the biggest and sort of the backbone of the theme. They organize themselves in a line, first-come, first-serve -- though humans like repetition and some entities will like to be first or last, etc. There are generally prizes for the best floats. In recent years it has become the practice to throw candy from the floats, though it’s rather dangerous since tots, once they get it into their heads what’s happening, will rush out to snatch candy from almost under the wheels of the vehicles, mostly big flatbed trailers or trucks with low visibility. This year someone threw out chocolate, which the sun soon dissolved. Either they were not thinking or desperate to get rid of the last Halloween or Easter candy so as to make more room in the freezer for fish.

The antique car show, which now includes the cars of MY youth, the Forties and Fifties, line up on a side street, and so do the horse entries, though there have been many fewer lately. Alas! These are my favorites, esp. the fine big black team from Dupuyer or the Belgian teams that compete in plowing contests.

Then the parade marshal, who normally runs Curry’s Groceries, stands at the intersection and waves forward a float (usually sponsored by a local business), then a fancy car one of which carries the parade marshall (who was at first an original homesteader but now is one of their ancient children), and then maybe a rancher with a small escort of grandchildren who talked him into riding. There hasn’t been a marching band since I moved here in 1999. Normally there is a contingent of Shriners in their flowerpot hats and their teeny runabouts, but the main Shriner of this town has moved to Conrad.

After the parade everyone repairs to the Town Park to eat gourmet roast beef sandwiches, inspect the fancy cars, and maybe cruise among the half-dozen tables with wares to sell. This year I took my bio of Bob, Bronze Inside and Out, and some copies of “Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke” over in my rollaround foot locker, which doubles as a seat. I put the Hagmann quilt over my mother’s old card table and the quilt attracted as much interest as the books. This is quilting country and they know quality when they see it.

Valier is growing, rather uncomfortably, with newly built houses, empty houses sold to outsiders, and many labor renters because of the border patrol, homeland security, a new wind farm, and a beginning transmission line. The bursting of the housing bubble has only hit us glancingly -- Michel has not returned from Florida to tend his “flip” houses. The impact comes with aging infrastructure and conflicting community standards. The mayor -- totally ignoring the train wreck on the back of my block (feral dog, lost man, derelict trailer, shoulder-height grass) -- touts us as Mayberry, USA. The cops report covertly that there is a huge local drug problem among the 20-to-50 year old marginal men -- NOT the teens so much, though they hang around the outside of the circle. Our water system is collapsing. The airport is possibly creating a plume of contamination.

But on a festival day, all that is forgotten and everyone comes to walk in the park. It was a scene worthy of Seurat though I saw no parasols, bustles or top hats. Dappled shade interrupted the pointillist sun-flood on newly cut grass and everyone had permission to visit. Among the surprising people I met were:

1. A retired Blackfeet teacher from Heart Butte who bought a house here and has discovered that some lots in Valier are technically part of tribal land, originally alloted to Blackfeet individuals. If he can get this certified and recognized, he can run for the Tribal Council (council members must live on the reservation) and will qualify for some federal advantages.

2. A border patrolman and his wife who have built a new house at the east edge of town in a field where they have the advantage of being rural on one side and village on the other.

3. An artist’s wife of considerable style, whose artist husband is disabled but still manages to cast his own bronzes in Bynum where their primary home is. They bought a small A-frame here, originally built as a bachelor pad for a divorced man so he could live close to his children as they grew up. They think of it as their “cabin,” a sort of second home. (Lots of people would happily live in Bynum, which is actually closer to the mountains and the higher society of Choteau.) Their view was a buffer field of grass and the wife grieved when it was cut for hay. I get the impression these people are not from Montana.

4. Emerald (Beep) Grant and his wife, Thedis, are Blackfeet and “into” books. “A member of the Blackfeet Tribe and a historian, Thedis Berthelson Crowe provides an indigenous perspective of the Blackfoot Lodge Tales in her new introduction to this edition. Her great-great grandfather, William Russell, served as the Blackfoot interpreter for Grinnell.” (From the U of Nebrasla Press catalogue) She has a degree in history from U of Montana. Beep is interested in writing, but unsure how to begin. I told him I’d like to do some workshops in Browning, both about actual writing strategies and about how to use the Print on Demand websites, like I was very encouraged that he seemed to like the idea.

5. The sheriff’s father-in-law took some time to explain his health strategies to me. He calls them “doctoring” and recommends naturopathy and chiropractors. But one of his main techniques is to rub white iodine onto his bald head! He whipped off his straw cowboy hat to show me how to do it. (He’s probably right that we all have iodine deficiencies since we’re far from the ocean. Both my South Dakota grandmother and Charlie Russell suffered from goiter.) He also had a little dispenser of Ph detecting tape in his pocket and tore me off a tab to wet with spit and then compare to a little color chart on the side of the dispenser. His diagnosis was that I need more calcium. (I thought maybe more spit would have done the job.)

Most interesting was watching the sets of age cohort kids. Older teens had managed to scorn the events, but there were sack races and raw egg tossing for little guys. A set of “tweens” lit near me to eat together and I shamelessly eavesdropped. The boys were still children, spraying silly string on each other and happy to have had dayglo (washable) paint thrown on their heads. The girls were just dipping their flip-flopped toes (ahem) into sex. I was fascinated by the interaction between one very skinny (except for her budding chest) Julia Roberts clone with a grin even wider than is currently admired in Hollywood and an older, heavier girl destined to run a family and convinced that she already knew how the world should be. Her ferocious mixture of adult quips, scornful wisdom, dire threats, and abrupt blows both fascinated and subdued the boys.

But the skinny girl wanted to talk sex: who was “hot,” who was “with” whom, just how far a girl should go, and other indiscretions, following the Mater around insisting that she respond. Hard to know whether she was boasting or begging for advice. Maybe that was the whole theme of the festival under the surface of a glorious day.

Saturday, June 28, 2008



Capitalism “invests” in what has succeeded in the past, with very little attention to gambles or minority constituencies. Their guides to success are simply statistics about selling. Some writers are just beginning to realize they have been reduced to “product” by publishers who want them to write minor variations ANNUALLY on one’s successful previous book. The Detroit model. This certainly accounts for the quality of many books in stores and airports and for the contempt best-sellers arouse in many readers. But the destruction to writers, reducing them to hacks pressured by the need to feed their families, is incalculable.

Many of the technological changes in the past few years have enormously reduced the capital necessary to publish. Even if one is so poor as to have access to a computer only through a library, one can write, design and post a book for sale without any money at all. The capital investment is all in the Internet providers and the POD businesses, who need no warehouses. The chief beneficiary aside from the readers and writers is the delivery system: the post office, UPS, FedEx, and so on. Their returns will diminish as Espresso machines (located in storefronts or libraries) prove capable of creating a physical book close to the buyer and as buyers become more used to reading on something like a Kindle, possibly not even archiving what they read but treating the text more like a lending library.

Since the bookstores and publishing houses are facing ever more difficult times, the middle men have turned their attention to the writer. No longer salaried editors at the publishers, educated people with contacts become agents, paid by the writer -- possibly by a percentage of sales or on a fee or contract basis. This means the former employed and “directed” person is now a hunter/gatherer and possibly a predator on writers. For instance, two agents have now advised me that my writing is not quite up to snuff, but they happen to have a “friend” who will rewrite it all for a small fee (several hundreds of dollars). Another gambit is a “competition” which costs money to enter and awards a prize of a $1,000. Since so many people want to be published and most can somehow squeeze out $20 by returning beer cans or something, there are enough entries to make a tidy profit AFTER the prize has been handed out. Small town lotteries for charity are no different in function. Writers are now also expected to subsidize research, a marketing plan, and actual promotion -- sometimes even travel and lodging on a tour being paid by themselves.

The problem is that quality is now catch-as-catch-can, except for agents that have developed a reputation for good taste and who are willing to recommend writers. But no agent can read everything that arrives on their doorstep, nor would they normally have enough money to hire the sort of people who sit by the slush pile, reading the first three pages. With computer printouts there is not even an obligation to return the precious manuscripts. So the way one now gets an agent is friendship networks, who are presumably at the same speed and quality as the agent. Now we don’t look for agents -- we look for the friends of agents. There are entities that list agents and tag the ones that are crooked or inept, but that tell a person little about the actual agent. Academic MFA programs create many of these networks. Teachers become agents.

Another strategy might be to publish in magazines, esp. those that specialize in a particular field like the environment or some demographic group. And another, which escapes editors altogether, is blogging. One blogs, one networks with other bloggers, one does a POD “blook” (an accumulation of blogs, hopefully re-edited), and sends it around to agents and publishers. We can only hope there are agents who can afford to pay someone to sit by the computer and cruise blogs, the way they formerly read slush pile manuscripts. But who wants blooks in physical print on paper? (That’s a serious question.)

Magazines still take a great deal of capital and are so dependent on advertising that they cannot afford to print controversial material. The rate at which mags are created and then dropped is simply amazing, because of the same unwillingness to spend capital without a monetory return. Not even prestige can keep the high end shelter mags (House & Garden, House Beautiful, et al) afloat. Anyway, they stick to the contributions of people they know who are willing to do piecework, not on salary.

The amount of capital has become less important than one’s skills as a hunter/gatherer FOR capital, but this sort of time-consuming work has to be deducted from the store of thinking and actual editing. I’m seeing that eJournals that start with great fanfare soon die of inanition (failure to thrive) because they eat away at those who produce them and are easily shrugged off as “soft” deadlines since no advertisers demand results.


The Internet allows “virtual” access to a huge “long tail” body of books whose costs of production have already been repaid. Used books, remainders or eBooks do not need to pay for printing. Anyway, paper, ink and binding for new printing have become a much more pricey investment. EBooks need not even be stored except in servers, possibly in cyberspace that costs nothing. Used books and remainders constitute “holdings” that must be housed, except in the case of personal collections for sale via eBay or Amazon. Again, it is the shipper who makes the most dependable money. But even the greenest book seller has access to market prices and outlets, as though selling slippers or Mexican jumping beans. (Selling coffee or oil successfully is much trickier because it is covert.)

The Espresso printing machine is more regional than a printing plant but less personal than a computer printer downloading in one’s back bedroom. Espresso is able to bind to industry standards, may eliminate POD as it exists today, and encourages regionalism in the kind of thing that is made available -- one no longer “makes” but “makes available.” Once again, the problem for the reader is how to find out what exists and what its quality might be. But it certainly returns much of the control of “publishing” to the reader, not even the writer. Writers must again romance their constituency, though I see an opportunity for specialty interface jobs, for instance, someone who advises clients about available books or Web designers who help authors. (There are already art consultants who keep track of what is a good investment and presumably try to advise buyers of what good art really IS.)

Passive Distribution

So distribution is likely to become far more focused on the reader. There’s a need for a website where people can say, “I’m looking for books about early churches in Montana.” And -- VOILA! Amazon, Abebooks, Alibris and Google all offer book searches by subject. There are ways to search through unpublished theses (why aren’t they all available through Print On Demand now? Or are they and I just don’t know?). There are ways to search through blogs by subject like Google. (Let’s hope not many people search for disgruntled people describing their inner state.) These are ACTIVE distribution but they still don’t indicate quality.

There ought to be many more bloggers who do reviews or provide maps of the territory. University listservs come close. Ask the listservs to which I subscribe (environmental, animal study, Native American, writing in the American West) for a recommended list of books or a sample course of study and you will get a host of sifted suggestions. Not only that, you’ll have an idea of where the recommender is coming from: who is inclined to Marxist theory, who is an active participant in the field, who is just old-fashioned. But these work because the academic institutional base has already sorted these people and disciplined them in the highest sense.

My own reviewing is much more a matter of chance and much more likely to include off-the-wall material, even though what I say is informed especially by a 1960’s arts bias and a 1980’s theological bias -- to say nothing of my affinity for Blackfeet and Montana. Normally a person with my interests would dwell on a campus and be thin on the ground. But because of the Internet, I’m useful to a growing number of people -- though they might have to pick and choose which blogs they can use. This is ACTIVE distribution, hunter/gatherer distribution.

Bottom line:

The kind of capital that really matters now is technological capital: the ability of a writer to get print out for distribution and the ability of the reader to find what they are looking for. This is NOT the Manhattan notoriety fiction kind of publishing paradigm, which I see as irreparably broken, which is why it is so shrill -- we’re listening to death throes.

What WILL persist are:

1. Beautiful books as works of art.
2. Useful books, such a manuals for doing things, though the kind that need constant updating will stay online.
3. Nostalgic books, which upon reading become so dear that one wants the physical objects. (I still have fairytale books from my childhood.)
4. Compendiums like the Norton collections of this and that, though many of them probably ought to be online.
5. Information for reference in settings where a computer can’t go or there is no internet access without special technology.
6. Probably others that I can't think of or haven't encountered.

Since I know nothing about the new forms like vlogs (video blogs), I’ve asked Barrus for comments. The rest of this blog is his.

Comments from Tim Barrus of Cinematheque Films, Blip.TV

The video world is beset with wolves as well. All of them are financial and many of the various packs are the same corporate ones that infect publishing. But there is a difference. It is found in the sheer number of videos and thusly a ubiquitousness. No one entity could possibly control it all. And the Big Players are music companies who are today being totally restructured in how they make money. It would be not unlike a situation where publishing had really hit rock bottom. Example: they are finding that giving away (maybe one song on an album) is a way to reach an audience
(giving anything away is a revolutionary idea) that is now used to paying 99 cents at Itunes or file sharing. They have to rethink the whole paradigm. One Big Girl Music Company is laying off 66% of its staff.

They are reeling.

Because they can't connect with the consumer. Another Monstrosity Inc is beginning to employ 16-year-olds as consultants and they are finally beginning to pull out of their slump. There is more of an Art Element for me than there was in publishing. I get reinforced in relationships. Especially by equality in
relationships. I don't have to care if my guyz fuck up artistically and they do. My most pressing focus is to keep them out of media storms. Where they would be devoured. They make mistakes. One is assuming they can deal with whoever comes along. I am always fighting access to them. I reroute that and make the issue access to me. Access to them could destroy them. They do not always assume that the people who want to meet them would use them. Or rather hurt them. I ALWAYS assume this.

I simply make safe places. This keeps their eye on the art. A dynamic totally foreign in publishing. Where no one is equal. Where equality even as an idea does not exist. There is no safe place in publishing. Everyone uses everyone. The cultural crowd you know is usually close to home. Where in video the cultural crowd you know is literally everywhere. Uruguay comes immediately to mind. I have an audience in Morocco and another one in Oman. I think they are all le French (pretty sure of it). There is a reciprocity publishing cannot duplicate. So much of this has to do with how neurology is developed. Many people developed intellectual capacity through written symbols.
They "hear" the words they read. Which is a reinforcement. But a younger audience is far more used to the reinforcement they get from being exposed to and manipulating the symbols of visuals and usually visuals that move. These two dynamics are UTTERLY different and take place within different regions of the brain. The human brain does adapt to change. But it has addictive mechanisms that seek out the synaptic reinforcements that have come before simply because it takes less energy to send an electron between dendrites that are already there than build new ones.

AND about this new paradigm. In video. In music. But not as much in publishing as far as money is concerned. The artist is beginning to work for the artist and not the corporation. Example: Carol King now owns her own music company versus being pulled around like a puppet by Capitol Capital. Inc. She actually interacts with the people who buy her music. Something no corporation PR dept would ever allow. She is working for Carol King and taking her copyrights with her. Waving bye bye to the corporation. Going online. So it's not just us little people doing it. My Space has TONS of groups doing it. Handling their own stuff. Publishing is WAY behind this trend and they keep whining about the reality they're selling less and less books. They are becoming irrelevant for a reason and that reason is called control.

Friday, June 27, 2008


As I struggle to understand the book world today, occasionally ramming my head into a corner because of wrong premises and insufficient evidence, I see two forces -- maybe three -- as massive to the point of controlling what happens: capitalism, manufacturing, and passive distribution. So, in sequence, let’s see if I can explain.

Capitalism is something I never understood until I owned this little problematic house, which attracts lenders. In the US capital assets control “class” and access to advantages more than education, which is meant to be a key to acquiring capital. The idea is that if you have “capital,” meaning disposable income either in the form of cash credits or possessions against which money can be borrowed, then that “capital” gives you a place at the economic table where money is made through the use of money. Access to a lovely lifestyle has nothing to do with it. Can you borrow money? Can you loan money for interest? Can you control the terms?

The trouble with capitalism -- unlike wages -- is that it quickly becomes predatory: that is, the people who have capital make money by preying on those who don’t have much, so must borrow, and today’s capitalists feel no obligation to compensate by putting their assets into good schools, charity hospitals, or the arts in any form. These are seen as government functions.

The difference between land owners in England some years ago and land owners in the US today, is the idea of noblesse oblige. (Wikipedia: 1. Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.. and 2. (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms with one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honourable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility." Being a noble meant that you had responsibilities to lead, manage, etc. You were not to simply spend your time in idle pursuits.) This ethic no longer exists, neither among the super-wealthy nor among government officials.

Still the extremely rich DO want to acquire markers of their importance and sometimes books can do that through fine or antique volumes worthy of purchase -- but also by the subsidized production of books pushing themselves, either directly or through their interests. The middle classes, who aspire to be wealthy, also use books as markers. This explains why they buy books but never read them -- leaving them around for others to see, always hardbacks with flashy covers, and hopefully signed by the writer in hopes that people will be impressed by their connections. The ideas contained in the books, the skill with which the writing is done, the implication of the book in the larger dialogue of ideas on the planet, are simply invisible to them. Occasionally they worry about resale value, which also discourages reading, since carrying a book around, writing in it, risking coffee stains and whatnot, would presumably lessen the value. Things must be protected even if the protection defeats the purpose of the thing, because the REAL purpose is the preservation of capital.

Capitalism, the use of money to make more money, is the basis of what we’ve understood to be publishing. It is a reservoir system for writers who have no capital -- that is, the publisher has funds which it uses to subsidize promising writers. It is quite like a “patron” in the old system where those with money (the king, the pope) keep artists on retainer while the latter compose music or paint. In those days the accomplishments of the writers reflected well on the publishers as patrons. But now publishing is run as a business: many major houses have been bought by corporations who expect the same kind of returns from books as they get from soup: 10% profit or more. The exception is publishing arms of universities, which do not expect to make a profit, but because they don’t, the universities (themselves starved for cash except for those programs subsidized by corporations in hopes of research and development they can use, which spares the corporation the expense and expertise necessary) have no capital. So university presses have become an arm of salary work, certifying employees (professors) for continuing employment and earning a living for the in-house employees. Writers are compensated by the stamp of virtue, though the academic presses are no more likely to have inspired editors than any other press.

Manufacturing books, after salaries, used to be the bulk of the cost of a book because they were normally printed in large numbers to save money. Much of the cost was setting up the printing machinery, rather than in the paper, buckram and ink. Also, much of the cost was in the provision of warehousing that protected the books from damage. Two ways of losing money were printing too many books so that profits are eaten up by storage cost, or not printing enough books so that a new press run was necessary. Repeated press runs became a marker for success, but unless the new printing were out before the popularity or usefulness of the book was over, then more expense had to be levied against profits.

The cheapest part of the manufacturing was the actual writing -- the payment to the author. But because not many writers have the stamina to hold a regular wage job or enjoy capital of their own, publishers invested with payments up front, estimated according to what they guess sales will be. The author received no actual profit until after “sell through,” that is when the publisher made enough money to have some profit. I’ve never been clear about what happens if the advance is never equaled by the publishing profits. Of course, the publisher determines what the costs are, which leads authors to accuse them of padding costs to avoid showing any profit.

The cheapest way to store books is to ship them out to bookstores who put them on their shelves. The agreement is that if they don’t sell, the bookstore can return them. In short, bookstores sell books on consignment and do not invest their own assets in buying books, even if they believe in them. Neither are they much interested in the physical condition of the books they return. The only real cost of a bookstore is rent on the physical premises and salaried employees. Bookstores do not advertise but rather sell advertising to the publisher in the form of display in advantageous spots and so on. Yet books are often most successfully sold by clerks who love books and recommend favorites.

Which brings us conveniently to the third point: passive distribution. A bookstore must request books when customers ask for them or if the manager sees the likelihood if it selling. But mostly sales are either conducted through discount deal-making at the top of a franchise in the case of a chain like Borders and the Big Box stores like Wal-Mart, or by distributing salesmen who take responsibility for a particular area, or (increasingly) by the author traveling with copies of the books to leave on consignment. In short, books arrive on the assurance of others, are on consignment anyway, and are sold at the demand of readers responding to the mass media advertising paid for by the publisher.

These three forces have “reduced” (I mean this to be pejorative) books to objects, useful mostly as markers for prestige and success. Even the flood of transgressively titillating books are meant to make a profit and to provide an opportunity for the kind of repentance scenario so beloved to mock Christians. The word is “ignoble.” Look it up yourself.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


CUT BANK - John Franklin Pambrun, 56, retired director of Family Services, died of congestive heart failure Wednesday at a Cut Bank hospital. Survivors include his wife, Denise Pambrun of Cut Bank; children Sean Pambrun of Billings, Vonnie Pambrun of Cut Bank and Jeremy Pambrun of Bozeman; and grandchildren Kaiden Pambrun, Iris Pambrun and Adian Pambrun.

John was born July 4, 1951, in Browning, to Audra Pambrun. He was raised and educated in Browning and graduated from Browning High School in 1969. John attended the University of Montana in Missoula and Montana State University in Bozeman, receiving degrees in business administration, social services, anthropology and history. He served as director of Family Services in Browning for the Blackfeet Tribe and the state of Montana, retiring in July 2007. On Oct. 13, 1978, John married Denise Racine in Browning.

John's interests and hobbies included fishing, shooting guns, and arts and crafts, and he loved his computer and traveling. Most especially, he enjoyed family gatherings. John was preceded in death by his mother, Audra Pambrun. John will be fondly remembered for his great sense of humor and will be dearly missed.

John’s humor was “off-the-wall” and meant to deflect anger and calm meetings with laughter. Once he said to an impetuous child, “Why don’t you go eat some cat food? You’ll feel better!” But when the child, who valued John’s advice, did just that, John was a bit abashed. Much of his joking was about his weight, which was massive. approaching morbid obesity (like his mother), and probably genetic. Smokey Doore, who was on the football team with John, told about the boy’s attempts to lose weight and gain stamina. He asked the football team to help him, so they all ran wind sprints with him and otherwise encouraged him. At the end of the week John joked, “I guess I like food better than football,” and quit the team to their disappointment. There were jokes about how big his coffin would have to be, because everyone knew that the weight would cause an early death.

John was an only child. His mother, Audra Pambrun, a beloved nurse and expert on Native American health issues (esp. suicide) was also very heavy. She was born in 1929 and died in the early 1990’s. She graduated from the Columbus School of Nursing on June 10, 1949. John was born two years later and she told about bringing him back to the reservation from her first job (she was a single mother), traveling by Greyhound bus, and how she was prevented from entering any of the little cafes where the bus stopped. They wouldn’t even warm the infant John’s bottle. The conclusion she reached from suffering this racial hatred was that she was better than them. Many white people benefited from her determination to show them by example what compassionate helping was like.

John and his mother had many friends. In his job with Child and Family Services, John at one time had 140 children as his responsibility and he considered all of them “my kids.” He kept a little trove of personally purchased gifts for them, knew them all by name, and worked desperately hard to keep any of them from slipping through the cracks. His favorite holiday was Halloween because he knew a lot about “trick or treat” and wearing masks. However, being overweight did not hide his lively mind and his heart was as big as his waistline.

Where does all this come from? Perhaps as the Blackfeet Tribe just passes through another tumultuous election, it’s useful to look at Audra’s father, George Pambrun. Paul Rosier’s book, “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954” has a dozen index entries for George, who was on the Tribal Council during WWII, then Secretary and finally the Chair. He was part of a faction that wanted self-determination because they did not think the white BIA officials were fair or informed about allocating loans and other funds and thought they could do a more efficient and equitable job themselves. They were actively opposed by the more full-blood people who feared mixed-bloods than whites, though the Blackfeet old-timers were never as oppressed by mixed bloods as the Sioux were. Mixed-bloods tended to have white fathers who could give them special advantages that pushed full-blood fathers and their children to the side. Besides, the Blackfeet have always had a tribal belief in the importance of a “big man” who dispensed food and privilege -- it was clear to them that the whites were the “big men.”

In George’s time, the tribal council could not or would not cap welfare grants for burials and hardship. George himself answered Office of Indian Affairs demands for explanation and explained patiently that they could hardly turn away their own people and that they had kept good records they would be glad to show to the OIA. In this time period Blackfeet were in the military in larger proportions than others, the more assimilated mixed-bloods went to the cities where they worked to build airplanes and ships, and the more traditional full-bloods went to the fields to bring in the food. They didn’t see why these contributions didn’t entitle them to run their own affairs.

In the spring of 1945 the “more competent” people met with the government to review their constitution. The dark side of wanting independence was that now a nation that had spent so much on the war wanted to terminate the reservations as an unnecessary financial drain. This was the key to “relocation,” the Eisenhower attempt to clear out the reservations by training and employing NA people in cities. The dark side of THAT was the creation of urban NA ghettoes which eventually gave rise to the American Indian Movement. About this time Pambrun warned that the new-found oil reserves were making the council vulnerable to corruption and bribery. These patterns are being re-enacted today.

In 1950 there was a referendum and election that put George Pambrun, Joe Brown and two women on the Tribal Council. The tribe clung to BIA supervision, evidently feeling a known evil was better than an unknown future. This is about the time Audra gave birth to John and came home to live with her father. Both their lives were committed to George’s dedication to “the least of these,” but not in a political way -- rather they acted personally and professionally.

If one goes back into the history of George Pambrun, the names that come up are Metis: Gallineaux, Burdeau -- until one comes to Pierre Chrysologue Pambrun, a valued employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who worked with Dr. John McLoughlin (the White-Headed Eagle who ruled the Oregon Territory) until he was assigned to run Fort Walla Walla in the very early days. Much of what we know about him -- that he was warm, courteous, generous, and competent -- comes from the journals of Narcissa Whitman, a great missionary heroine of Oregon history.

This material cries out for an epic saga of generations. “Generativity” was the name Erik Erikson used to mean working towards the good of the future generations. If there is one word that describes John Franklin, Audra, and George (who was John’s father-figure) it is generativity. Luckily, John had many, many children.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


My computer is in what was a back bedroom that looks out over the backyard. A week or so ago a dog went cruising through -- this is NOT usual. Valier is strict about the leash law, or tries to be. The next day I was in the kitchen which also faces the yard and the dog was back, this time plainly in pursuit of Squibbie, my tortoiseshell cat. Part lizard and part leopard, she beat it into the back garage and presumably up the ladder to the loft. I went out and yelled at the dog. Next day she was back, checking around for that cat. Later I saw her in the back alley, stalking a white cat with orange patches. She clearly had pups somewhere.

Others were complaining, but small towns are the same as big cities: when it comes to dogs, they stall and wait for Divine Intervention. In the meantime, I had been complaining about an abandoned house trailer standing open on the back of the block. Unsecured, with no water or electricity, nevertheless people had been staying there. Again, the town huffed and puffed but did nothing. The dog was living under it in a long burrow she entered on the short side. She was eating cats for lack of anything else. Quite a few cats evidently live in the trailer, “upstairs” so to speak.

Between that trailer and my house lives Petunia (not her real name -- she fears blogs), who loves animals, and she and I began to feed the dog to keep it from eating cats. The town sheriff’s deputy and I went over to take a look and spotted the pups, who were up and walking. The mother -- a sweet-faced, bat-eared mix of shepherd, lab, Akita?-- could be approached but not grasped. She growled and barked. Kids on bikes were swooping past like bullbats after bugs. They knew to whom the dog belonged: them. Soon we were talking to the owners. Yesterday the mother, the oldest daughter, Petunia, and myself went over and captured nine of the ten pups in a melee of screaming, barking, desperation and determination. Today they are presumably on their way to the humane society.

Petunia is very sad and indignant. She’s close to 75, has two little dogs of her own, and still does a lot of pretty heavy labor to keep their property nice. The neighbor on the north side is outraged, saying that the dog rushed her son’s girl friend. The mother dog will probably be either shot or poisoned, unless she can be trapped. The deputy sheriff has no proper trap nor training with the pole-snare. Nor does he have contact with the animal control officers in Glacier County. Pondera has no specialized officer.

This is a recognizable “rez dog” out of its context. The “owners” have a house in Heart Butte where the then nearly-starved dog crept into the garage and had two puppies, one dead. The family also has a house in Valier so the kids can go to the better schools here. When they got to the house in Heart Butte and discovered the dog and pup, the kids were enthralled. They love to rescue everything living. So the dog came to Valier with them, but she went into heat again and disappeared until she showed up under the trailer. She is no longer thin and she is no longer approachable. In Heart Butte she would become part of the background of dogs, a constantly shifting collection that occupies an ancient ecology. If the dogs weren’t there the town would be infiltrated by bears, cougars and coyotes. In Valier the dog enrages the orderly rural older people who want everything under control. Even I am attached to my cats and don’t want them eaten.

The discussion has now become one about who should shoot the dog or poison the dog or taser the dog... Get rid of that dog! Peer pressure is being brought to bear on that family, not that they care. Pressure is also on the deputy who is expecting an addition to his family any day, any hour. Pressure from one’s heavily pregnant wife cannot be ignored, but she hardly lobbying to get rid of the dog.

We’re all waiting for Divine Intervention in several ways. Esp. Petunia and I who have partly resolved not to feed the dog anymore, in hopes it will go off somewhere before it has to be killed and to defend our own feelings if it IS killed. She’s named her “Lady,” and I call her what those kids named her, “Princess.” Both of us have had a grip on her collar at one time or another, but the Lady Princess fights too hard for us to hang on. I make suggestions, but hesitate to tell a deputy sheriff what to do, esp. one half my age.

The root of the problem is not the dog at all. It’s the property, which belonged to an old man felled by Alzheimers. He is either dead or in a nursing home, his slightly “off” son is the one who breaks back in to stay there, and the local real estate people will have nothing to do with the problem of unraveling ownership and at least offering an evaluation. The grass is up to my shoulders so the mower maniacs went over to tackle it, but soon destroyed their mower blades on discarded metal junk, even though they had carefully walked the area to get rid of it. Of course, they were trespassing and knew it. We dog rescuers are also trespassing and know it. This has the potential to escalate to someone dying inside the trailer, which will allow the sheriff to enter without technically trespassing. IF he knows the corpse is there, which will be hard to discern because the place already reeks.

The dog part of the problem becomes so unsolvable because of lack of focus: confused motives. Even Petunia and I, between and within ourselves, are conflicted about what to do. We can NOT take this dog into our households, because of our own pets. We know she can’t go on there. We don’t want the dog shot. We try to imagine alternatives, all the best ones cost money and each of us have an income that barely tops a thousand dollars a month. It’s a strain to buy dog food. The town is equally ambiguous and quite ready to blame Petunia and I. (They’re always mad at the sheriff unless they really need him.) None of this is unique and none of it is only a small town problem. It was the same in Portland, Oregon, forty years ago. It's the same in Great Falls. It's the same all over America. We just don't know what we think about animals.

Friday, June 20, 2008


For a few years in the Nineties I was the “flood plain lady” for the City of Portland. That is, I was the clerical specialist for the Site Development team, who had custody of the flood plain maps, and when someone called up to find out whether a property were in the flood plain, I was the one who was supposed to tell them. The maps were huge and there were a lot of them. I’d unroll them on the counter and try to figure them out. They were out of date. The flood plain was a legal category built on engineering estimates of a changing terrain and weather pattern. The public never understood that: to them it was simply whether the place would flood. Would it flood every fifty years? Every hundred years? Every five hundred years?

Hell, who cared? They just wanted to build what they wanted to build and they saw all this land sitting there with nothing built on it. Seemed perfect. Nice and cool. Fairly flat. Good view of the river... They asked their neighbor who had lived there ten-twenty years and the neighbor said it had never flooded before.

There is so much pressure from the public that the politicoes force the plans examiners to let people built on the flood plain if they build “flood resistant” buildings. (There’s no such thing as a flood-proof building.) Mostly they required high foundations, so the sills of the house were above the height the water was likely to reach. Foundations with holes in them, so that water would flow through. (Waterborne gas tanks, sheds, vehicles and trailer homes would NOT flow through.) If water comes up one-third of the way on a structure, it will float -- then turn over -- unless it’s attached to the foundation with steel straps.

One woman formerly from the Soviet Union came back with new plans every week. The last one showed foundations thirty feet high with a little one-story house perched on top. She knew from her experience in the homeland that if she nagged long enough, the authorities would shrug and say: “Aw, let her build. If she loses everything in the next flood, she asked for it.” But we held fast. She had no clout.

The point of quantifying flood damage and likelihood was actuarial because the US insures people devastated in floods. I remember as a small child watching the newsreel footage of houses floating with people in the roof, sometimes clutching their dog. The whole Missouri/Mississippi complex evolved as drainage for the North American continent on the east side of the Rockies when the glaciers finally melted ten thousands years ago. In the Thirties the engineers thought they had tamed the rivers, and they had certainly spent a lot of money.

When engineers go after a problem, they try to quantify and calibrate and invent classifications for sorting. So they got out all the rainfall measurements (since the 1800’s when there were white people around to keep records) and then they figured out how much water that must have been rolling down the rivers. Then they got out their contour maps -- the ones with all the little lines that show elevation by getting closer and closer together as the rise gets steeper -- and tried to calculate the carrying capacity of the flood plains. They chose one of those elevation lines to be the isobath, the height they figured the water would reach. Of course, those lines greatly simplified the terrain and they were drawn quite a while ago. Land doesn’t just sit there: people fill in with more dirt, banks erode.

The Flood of the Century in the Red River country in 1997 -- which was a few feet deep and miles wide -- was complicated because the Red River flows towards the north, so it melts from the south while the water is still frozen farther north, creating dams that raise the water level. The floods came so often in Winnipeg that people finally consented to create diversion canals -- they were barely adequate. Grand Forks failed to take any precautions so that the water came deep and hard. When a fire started, no one could get to it so it took out eleven buildings and sixty apartment units.

The flood about the same time in the city of Portland had nothing to do with ice: it was about heavy simultaneous rain in BOTH the drainage of the Columbia and the drainage of the Willamette so that they met at the city. Such a chance event, unpredictable as are many things when it comes to weather, was so unusual that the people -- many of whom moved there because the city was “pretty” and “civilized” -- had insisted that the top of the downtown flood wall be removed so they could see the nice view. (Historically, Portland has always been vulnerable to floods.) Luckily, there was a lot of new home construction and when the mayor put out a call for help, crews came from all over town with plywood, plastic sheeting and their hammers to save the downtown. It barely worked.

The levees that were supposed to be saving the airport from a repeat of the Vanport Flood had been breached by muskrats and nutria, burrowing in and out, and were bubbling up water from the ground on the “safe” side of the levees. At the airport the big planes that couldn’t be flown out quickly were towed up to a highway -- quite a sight. Shopping malls and manufacturing businesses had built where Vanport used to be. The mayor had to decide whether to evacuate them or not. She decided not, on grounds that lives might be lost through the chaos of evacuation and the city would be liable. Of course, if Hayden Island had flooded again, lives would also likely be lost. Luckily, she won her gamble, but it could have gone the other way.

Not long afterwards someone suggested that a much-needed county jail be situated on that flood plain. The head of Site Development, a quiet but stubbornly intelligent man, went to a hearing to tell them how likely it was that the jail would be flooded and that rising water might lock all the fancy electronic doors so that no one could escape. Another person at the hearing sneered, “Who cares? Good riddance!” Our hero, our boss, pointed out that his own brother was a guard at the jail and did not by any measure deserve to die. If anyone does.

It’s hard to educate people who don’t want to know. It’s hard to commit massive and expensive relief efforts to people who have been warned and warned and restricted and guided over and over and over again. But we are being taught hard lessons in the wettest of ways. The bottom line is that the earth does not care. Romanticize all you want. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, erosion, rainfall patterns -- no engineer can do much more than run along behind taking notes.

But people got so angry that when I was the flood plain lady, I kept a can of bear spray under the counter. If I’d had to use it, of course, the building would have had to be evacuated.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


L to R STANDING: Miss Agnes Carter, Mrs. Othus, Miss DeArmond, Miss Colbert, Mr. Jones, Mr. Purvis, Mr. Thiringer, Mr. Downey, Mrs. Lueptow, Miss Able, Mrs. Eagle, Mrs. Baynard, Miss Wendler, Mr. Nelson.
L to R SITTING: Miss Johnson, Mrs. Rhea, Mrs. Rumble, Miss Crout, unknown, Miss Fowler, Miss Eade, Mrs. Lowe, Miss Whitmore, Mrs. Qualman, Miss York.

These are the people who drew my map of life: the faculty of Vernon Grade School in Portland, Oregon. They’re dressed up to celebrate the 1952 Oregon Centennial of becoming a Territory, which always precedes becoming a state by a few years. (Most of the Western states couldn’t become territories until the Indian reservations were settled in 1850 and Oregon fits that pattern.)

I used to joke that when I walked into a Browning, Montana, event, the sound of my voice made the heads of all my former students go up -- and Bob Scriver’s voice made the heads come up of the generations who had him for a teacher, including Earl Old Person, now famous as "Chief for Life." These are the people who made MY head go up! Except that Mr. Garnett is not there. And no one can remember who that woman fifth from the left in front might be. She must have just stayed a year or so.

Now that I look at Mrs. Eagle, fourth from the right in the back row, it hits me with a rather electrical frisson that she was very likely American Indian! Probably her husband’s proper name was something like Walking Eagle or Screaming Eagle. And it may be that she dressed as a priest on this occasion, judging from her collar. (Think of what THAT means!) She was the teacher who finally unlocked the mysteries of reading for my brother, using phonics as the key. (I sight-read.) The woman next to Mrs. Eagle is Mrs. Baynard, whose name I had repressed. She’s the one who shied the ink pot at my brother, or so the legend goes.

Miss Colbert, who was definitely Chinook, eventually a tribal elder, and whose house in Ilwaco is preserved for visitors, is in the back row fourth from the left. Her book, “Kutkos, Chinook Tyee,” has just been restored to print and is justifiably famous, as much as the works of people like James Willard Schultz among the Blackfeet. Except that Miss Colbert WAS Indian and the only teacher in this group who became internationally known.

Mr. Jones
, rather precious and with his eyes shut, is wearing a little bow tie. I suspect it was Miss Wendler, next to the end on the right, who married him and put him through dental college. I feel sure that Mr. Thuringer (on the left of the two bearded gents) and his companion were both vets, but I don’t remember Mr. Downey at all. Mr. Thuringer had a missing leg. His replacement contraption didn’t work all that well and was evidently painful. A few times he went off on tirades about war and hinted at what he had seen, but was quickly reined in by the administration. He taught shop (Great “war” there over whether girls should have to take shop or should stick to home ec where we learned to make pink applesauce by throwing in a handful of cinnamon candies. In shop I learned to wire a lamp -- very useful. I NEVER make pink applesauce.) Maybe that woman no one can remember was the home ec teacher. Maybe Mr. Downey was the PE teacher.

Mr. Purvis became the principal -- very archetypal. Sort of big, loud and full of himself. Taught math at this point. Elementary schools are almost always kind of henhouses, since somehow our 19th century culture shifted from believing that only men should teach to the idea that motherly women were the ideal until puberty. Maybe this is one of the unacknowledged effects of the frontier, where only unmarried women were desperate enough for the pittance of an income in one-room schools, as well as willing to either board with a family or live in a tiny room off the back of the school. Or maybe it had something to do with war, which killed off so many young men.

The school secretary, Miss Whitmore (Third from the right, sitting) was rumored to have rather a tight relationship with Mr. Nelson and, in fact, after retirement she and Mr. and Mrs. Nelson were driving down the long incline into Gresham when they had a terrible auto accident. My memory dims about the consequences, but I think they were grave. In my head they are entangled with “Ethan Frome,” but Mr. Nelson was SURELY no Ethan Frome.

I would have said SURELY that Miss York was a Missus, but we were all confused about such matters sometimes. We tended to believe that “nice” teachers were married and “mean” ones were not. Certainly male counselors and administrators would be more blunt about it, hinting at frustration as a source of unhappiness which might very well have been a projection of their own situation.

Look how flirtatious Miss Carter is! (The left end of the back row.) Picking up her skirt like an Irish colleen! And Mrs. Othus (next to her), who was known to have a VERY happy marriage despite her wig, is wearing a corsage, like several others including Mr. Purvis and Miss Crout, the art teacher. What could THAT have meant?

This is Mrs. Qualman’s class, combined grades one and two. My brother Paul has a white arrow over him. If I can make out my father’s scheme for names: The four farthest to the left are Diane Wilde, Raymond Siegel, Lonnie Carlon and Katharine somebody. Then Susan Christianson, Ethel Lilly, Eddie Phipps. Gary Johanson, Suzanne Hogan. The next line is Randy Wood, Ty Jansen, Paul Strachan (arrow), Mrs. Qualman, Donald somebody and Jeanette somebody. Farthest to the right and starting at the front are Gary Schreiner (a head as round as Charlie Brown!), Louise Evans, Michael someone, Pat McCarthy, Gary Swanson.

In those days (1952) no one objected when the class stood in prayer for a moment to start the day. Hadn’t God sent the US of A to save the world from Nazis and hadn’t we succeeded? It was only humility to believe God ordained this.

This is Mrs. Abel’s third grade class with an arrow pointing to my brother Mark. No names for the others. This is the class two years before my class, so some kids could probably be identified by us.

And here’s the piece de resistance! Miss Carter, proudly displaying that Christmas’ ingenious project! (My mother stands next to her with my dad’s hat and his extra camera.)

We were conscious that we should record the Fifties school years. It had been a tradition since photography was invented and roving professionals recorded classes across the frontier, knowing that children grew up or maybe died. We didn’t think about that much at the time, though polio cast a shadow almost as strong as AIDS does today. The thing in the Fifties was to be cheerful and well-adjusted, to work hard and contribute to society.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


No one deceived me. I deceived myself, or maybe I could defend my ego by saying it’s a systemic deception and not one confined to the United States. Maybe it’s a deception of white Euro-based culture. I mean the illusion that a person can make money by writing books. Another author came to visit and kindly explained to me what I sort of knew but had been steadily denying: “Bronze Inside and Out” will not make any money for me. Any. I have confirmed this with the new publisher who is not part of the deception and tells the truth. No money. Not ever. It will, however pay the salaries of the press employees.

It’s not their fault. The acquiring editors did not know what they had acquired, did not understand how to manage it, did not have the basic necessity of publishing: monetary capital. They were an “academic press,” meant to accommodate the need for proof of value of faculty after they had their degrees by publishing a book now and then. (The acquiring editor had a contract to supply a certain number of “Legacy” manuscripts about important locals every year and framed my manuscript that way.) In Canada they say, “Publish or prairies” because prairie colleges for a professor is banishment, where you go if no one respects you. And this particular university is focused tightly on the past -- narrow, hoarding, defensive. Like Montana.

In our culture the fact of “being published” is a stamp of value. And in our culture value means money. Not much more than that because not enough people are educated to know what “value” in intellectual endeavors might mean. Anyway, it used to mean conformity to those who had the power in the status quo. (Seminary taught me that.) Now it means almost anything from “I like it” to “it changed the world.”

So the truth of this is that I can no longer say to myself, “when the big check comes I’ll get the pickup fixed” or “the shower fixed” or “my teeth fixed.” I mean, when these things become intolerable, what WILL I do? In a world where bananas cost $10 a pound, will I be able to eat? In a place where all jobs are thirty miles away and gas costs almost as much as a banana, where’s the net gain of going back to work? With my ideas and personality I might only be repeating the Cut Bank High School fiasco.

But the deeper truth is something else: the validation. Now I’m back confronting the problem of how good a writer I am. Richard Stern, my most demanding professor, says, “I enjoyed your book a great deal. The picture of your husband is full and powerful. As for money, it's not in the literary cards. It's been 35 years since I made any -- even then it wasn't enough to live on.” He’s one of the best writers in America and has been telling me the truth gently all along and so have many others. In the end, how good a writer a person is has to be decided by the writer him or her self. I believe I have the skills and drive, I believe I have something to say.

One of my best efriends this past year has been (gasp) Tim Barrus. His aboriginal nom de plume, Nasdijj, was beside the point. (I also correspond with a Cree-Chippewa grandpa whose name is Nadjiwan.) Tim didn’t sound to me like a Navajo but he certainly knew what he was writing about. Maybe more than most “white ladies,” I’ve been in and out of derelict hotels, abandoned hulks of houses, tumbled and weathered shacks. Not because I lived there but because work took me there. I know one heckuva lot of Blackfeet mixed with other tribes. What Barrus wrote rang deeply true to me.

He was praised, certified, raised to the skies as an example of how people can rise from humble roots. Then some enterprising journalist not interested in revealing George Bush ripped away Barrus’ writing persona. Instead of the book world being embarrassed, they attacked him, reviled him. One minute he’s flying first class with his helper dog named Navajo, and the next he’s a pariah. But the man is so endearing to ME because he didn’t just lie down and beg for forgiveness like the shit-eating James Frey, so that the same people who had raised him up could throw him back down, so they could get their Jimmy Cho 4-inch heels embedded in the back of his neck. Instead he bitch-slapped them back with words. All the things you’re not supposed to say.

The sad part is that those (mostly) women were only a puppet front -- Stepford editresses -- for the corporation masters who have changed publishing from a gentleman’s business, which was a way of managing capital by seeking fine writers and selling fine books (the origin of the status of published authors as something like gentry) into an assembly line for profit, a thing they call “book packaging” where they steal words from formerly successful books, throw them together, invent a writer of some kind with ethnic difference and low class afflictions, and hire someone to pretend to be that person.

This is not what Tim Barrus did. (He does NOT write like Sherman Alexie.) Tim Barrus was mocking that whole patronizing concept, wiping it away and writing from his heart. He wrote the deepest life-problem a person can have, betrayal by a parent that is denied by everyone else including the other parent. Somehow, from somewhere, he got the strength to transform that with love. Is that why the book was published? No. It was sensational. It won a lot of prizes because it was sensational. But it was also damn good writing and it was deeply, deeply felt, so it couldn’t be controlled by publishers.

Can I come up to that standard? I don’t know where to look for the markers except within myself. My more literary cousins have been highly supportive. My money-centered cousins want nothing to do with me. My brother wants nothing to do with me. My best undergrad friend who always said I was a great writer now tells me he’s dyslexic: he buys the books but that’s it. No reading. MANY people tell me they bought the book but have only read parts or just look at the pictures. I had no idea I knew so many non-readers. They say they don’t have time. They have to be in the mood. The review copies sent to eloquent people were read, but then no reviews were written. How do I interpret that?

Another writer, who wanted me to help him, offered in return to show me how to form a nonprofit corporation and use it to get grants from foundations established by easy-money guilty millionaires because that’s where the money is, not in publishing. One thinks up a lofty purpose, milks it, does a minimum of work. I could name several of these. One was going to be a great boon to Montana humanities, a quarterly that would showcase excellent work. So far it’s more of an annual, while the directors on salaries flog their own work. Classic reservation boondoggle. The humanities scene in Montana is controlled by people serving their own interests, which they fancy are the same as serving others but have the effect of closing out a great many or trivializing those they serve. The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel -- don’t ask.

Someone asked Mary Clearman Blew, an honest person, whether it were possible to earn a living by writing. She said no, but that the peripherals paid well: teaching, panels, speeches. But they are peripheral and they may be on their way out, since they are funded by benevolent non-profits and universities which are less and less benevolent. And then there’s the price of travel now.

Barrus says his central focus is survival and he does this by going to video instead of print, publishing on the Internet (the publishers are dying, the bookstores are dying), and gathering a posse of young men who take care of him when he’s away from his wife. (Don’t think dirty thoughts about it. They are learning to be good fathers.) I’m about to the point where I don’t care about survival. I’ve tipped my hat to what I think will sell, but not really compromised. Now I won’t compromise at all. No more looking for publishers. No books, just writing. I’ll publish my words for a damned Kindle and learn to make Podcasts so commuters can listen to them. No scandals will ensue. This is who I really am: no mask. Like it or not.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Experts have been warning us for a long time that water shortages will set off even more deadly wars than famine does, and here in Valier, Montana, where irrigation means crops, we know that they are connected. We take these matters seriously. But we hardly expected the barrage of misspelled certified letters that the town council was sent by one individual.

Vitriolic personal attacks from this person demanded that the town stop selling water to the country folk around Valier. The seeming objection was that “excess” water shouldn’t be sold to outsiders while townspeople were rationed when it came to watering their lawns. (Every other day.) The real objection, I suspect, was that huge farm trucks lumber up the main street of Valier, beginning early in the morning, to buy ag chemicals stored at the airport where they are mixed with water from the city water hydrant. These trucks were so early and so loud, that the sleep of the complainant was disturbed. (I’m on the main street and soon learned to sleep through the commotion, but maybe this person is of a delicate sensibility and doesn’t sleep well.)

What struck me was the nearly instant leap to “us against them,” the townsfolk against the country folk, because it showed such an abysmal lack of understanding of what a town like Valier really is: the hub of the area where the people come to shop, to go to church, attend school, use the library, visit friends and esp. older relatives who have retired to town, the place for celebrations like Homesteader Days and blood drives and parades. The town and the country are two sides of the same thing. There is no divide between us and them, except that lately “outside” people have moved here to retire, seeing only a quiet safe place to live. As soon as they get situated, as is often the case, they begin wanting Valier to be like whatever place they left.

When I voted recently, one side of the City Hall was “my” town precinct but there was another set of tables on the other side. “Who are THOSE people?” I asked. “That’s the country precinct,” they told me, and the folks staffing the tables joked, “Oh, yes, they keep us hicks segregated!” But I noticed that they were in the same hall and voting through the same process. If their senior citizens came to the hall at noon for the subsidized meal, they would be served.

I went up the street to the little airport to get their side of the story. The father, who still owns the business, used to fly a crop duster plane, going out early in the morning in what sounded like a bumblebee. (Fields must be sprayed early in the morning, which is why the trucks some so early.) Maybe you saw him in the newspapers when Homeland Security decided he might be a terrorist -- later they apologized, but he gave up crop-dusting. Now the sons run the business, selling ag chemicals and spraying from a truck. To attract farmers to their ag chem business, they offer to let them load water from the city hydrant by the airport. This water is free to the farmers, but it’s paid for by the ag chem business so there’s no loss to the town. 3% of the town’s water is sold to farmers. Residential water is not metered.

The town has always provided water to the area farmers, some of them on land so dry that there is no well at all or it doesn’t have potable water. They must keep household water in an underground cistern. The previous truck-loading water-spout is on the south side of town but it was not designed high enough for some modern trucks and tanks. It takes a long time to load and sometimes the trucks are lined up and idling. The farmers have come to prefer the airport hydrant.

I’m EXTREMELY nervous about herbicides, pesticides, aviation fuels, and so on. A neighbor next to the airport has lost a series of pets to cancer, enough for the veterinarian to want to know where he lived. I’m assured that all the checks and restrictions and so on are currently up to standard, but there have been gaps.

The next little loop is that Pondera County and the FCC finally noticed that ag chemicals are being stored in the hangars and other airport buildings, which is against regulations. They have been removed, but are still present in the yard next door. The Town of Valier’s wells are very close. No one has tested for underground plumes of contaminating chemicals.

Returning to the subject of the sorehead sending confrontive letters to the Town Council on behalf of mysterious people he calls “Dissatisfied Citizens of Valier,” Googling his name reveals that he approaches everything in this same confrontive -- if not assaultive manner -- including his private life. His real residence and his job are in expensive Whitefish where he participates in rallies behind the Blue Moon Tavern. Some of us are quite familiar with the Blue Moon. Over there his pet issue is the government closing roads into the wilderness. He also complains that his little business, High Plains Fabricating (which appears to be him alone, welding), was squelched by Valier.

Some of the folks who move into Valier are fairly “high end” and their beef is lack of the amenities they expect. But this particular sorehead is more along the lines of thinking this is a place where he can do what he wants to do, like sleep in. He doesn’t want to come to meetings, doesn’t want to really live here, doesn’t want to be confused by the facts, etc. I'm sure he doesn't want us to notice his family life, but in Valier we all know when someone blows their nose.

While I was doing my “fact checking” around town, I was hanging out across the street from the Town Hall. Suddenly, pickups came whirling up and slammed stopped at the curb, the garage doors went up on the emergency vehicles and their engines began to turn over. In minutes they were headed out of town towards Cut Bank with the Deputy in close pursuit. We hope that the people in trouble were “not our people,” but there’s no question that the people in those vehicles -- all volunteers except the Deputy -- will do their very best to help whoever it is. If the victims are confrontive and want to fight about it, well, that’s just part of their trouble and it will be coped with, however it’s necessary. If they can stay in touch with reality, it will help a lot.

Monday, June 16, 2008


I’ve always said that life is a game of cards and that what counts is how you play your hand as the cards come down. But I have always tried to separate myself from the others at the card table: my cohort, my classmates -- not as a matter of superiority but as a matter of being unique, atypical, and possibly just not belonging at all. Now I’m going the other way.

I belong to five educational cohorts that I actually consider to BE that: Vernon Grade School, Jefferson High School, Northwestern University, University of Chicago, and Meadville/Lombard Theological Seminary. I went straight on to degrees from all of them, not transferring and not dropping out, though one could argue about Meadville since I had intended a D Min degree and stopped at an M Div, leaving before I quite finished up. Strangely enough, it is Vernon Grade School, Class of 1953, which seems to be the strongest and the most interesting at the moment, though I keep in touch with all five. Never donate though.

Vernon had 76 members at the moment of graduation, though people came and went. (Compare with eight people in my class at Meadville!) Five have died, along with all the teachers that I know of. Fourteen are lost -- no addresses. That leaves 57 and we’ve picked up some fellow travelers from other classes. These folks have an evident need to get together every month. Most live around the area, though almost no one still lives in the old Vernon District. This is because the Vanport Flood of 1948 shifted the black population of Portland so that Vernon is now almost entirely black students. Charles Etta Reed was the only one in our class: adult, knowing, tolerant and far more of an outsider than I ever understood a person COULD be at that point.

The district was originally the little town of Albina and I’m sure that the reason that I’m comfortable in Valier is that it’s quite like the original Albina, vestiges of which remained for decades along Alberta, Killingsworth, and Ainsworth in NE Portland. Maybe that’s what holds the class together: memories of the shops along the streets, first jobs, family life, young friends, even memorable dogs! Churches -- a surprising number of us were the children of pastors. The only classmate who has stayed a steady friend all through the years is Pearl Lee, also our only Asian. Both of us were very close to Joan McGowan, but that ended during the college years, as she predicted it would because she didn’t go.

My mother became a teacher, like Clark Benson’s mother and Everett Payton’s mother, and that meant that they were members of the Portland teacher network, a telegraph system of considerable efficiency. They kept track of Ted Neighbors’ mother somehow. Otherwise, going off to Northwestern -- partly because it was so far and different -- pretty much broke my ties to everyone. After college I didn’t return to Portland. Instead my first teaching job was in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation and that has been my most powerful community ever since, even more than the ministry.

At Vernon there was one Indian teacher, Mildred Colbert, who was Chinook and a vital, driving, intense woman. In those days one passed between classes in a line that was supposed to be quiet and orderly. I well remember standing in line against the lockers because we didn’t meet Miss Colbert’s standards of quiet and orderliness and she wasn’t afraid to tell us so. Today she would not be allowed to be so harsh but we don’t seem to have been scarred. I wonder where she was educated, whether it was in one of the notorious boarding schools. An old maid, she lived in a little house on NE 33rd with her brother (who was often in trouble) and a sister, though as with all Indian families, relatives came and went.

The only Indian students I can remember were Victor and Norma Owens. I had a huge crush on the handsome Victor. Norma was in my mother’s 4-H sewing “club” and my mother was often exasperated with her for one reason and another. They weren’t in our class at graduation. I don’t think they were from a NW tribe and my guess is that they were related to the Indian community that formed around ship-building during the war. Seems like they were Cherokee, but so many people are a “little bit Cherokee” (even President Clinton) that it’s become a joke.

So what effect did these people have on me? I was respectful and a little bit scared of the big handsome guys. Especially wary of the sashaying and sassy pretty girls. Aware that I was pressed into the company of other quiet bookish girls, sort of anachronistic young women, almost like Mormons or Hutterites. There was a certain kind of young man, often small for their age and cuddley rather than muscled, who turned out to be solid family men and high achievers at their jobs. Everett Payton and Clark Benson were sort of like cousins since our mothers formed a bit of a sisterhood, but we didn’t socialize. I can’t think of any Vernon families who had us over for dinner or the like. Everett and I won a prize in the Junior Rose Parade once -- I was Little Bo Peep in blue taffeta and he was in tails, but I have no idea why. I think I still have the blue ribbon somewhere. And, of course, one of my most cherished memories is that Gary Brannan gave me a beaded ring in the second grade (I think) and said that meant we were engaged. Whatever that was.

Janet Wilson is the one who ended up with the job I would have LOVED to have had, up at the zoo. Art Schmidt ended up at the head of Clinical Pastoral Care for the nation, and you have no idea how much that impresses me since I struggled through ten weeks of that training.

This is Art, my rival at grammar, and Jeannie McGuire who keeps the Vernon cohort together. Her dignified and patient dad fitted most of us who needed eyeglasses.

Doctor John Webber took a tragedy and made it into a triumph, remaining a much respected and loved figure among us. And I always had a crush on Tommy Wilhelm, from kindergarten on. When I confided this to my mother during the primary years, she got a wry expression and laughed. The joke was the Wilhelms were major garbage haulers. “You’ll never starve!” she said in approval. People still thought about such things then.

I still might starve. I came down exactly where I wanted to in the end. Pearl Lee came with her family to see me a few years ago. She hadn’t changed a bit. I’ve continued to change -- maybe made a major change since she was here, since I lost fifty pounds to cure Diabetes 2. But here we are as two jolly Vernon grads, two very different paths, and quite different genomes -- yet linked.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


Oh, all right. I’ll buckle to social pressure and talk about my father a bit -- though a conflicted and emotional subject it is. The Great Falls Tribune this morning is full of young, handsome, competent fathers. My father was something more problematic. At the end I thought of him as Pagliacci: laughing on the outside, crying on the inside. He used to read Karen Horney in an effort to understand what it was all about, but he never thought of professional help and, if he had, I’m not sure it would have done him any good. He also needed a good medical doctor but set a bad -- even lethal -- example for his sons by not going to one.

Probably I’ve done a pretty good job of reconciling the genes and convictions of my two parents, not that it’s been easy. But if life sets you a difficult puzzle, solving it is often the making of a person. I used to explain by telling people my mother taught me how to drive a nail straight -- hit hard and hit only three times -- and my father taught me how to sweep -- short, gentle, circling strokes. Both their lives were rather preoccupied by two American unsolvables: wealth and wickedness.

So here’s my father, visiting the Pittock Mansion in the West Hills of Portland, goofing around by standing in the shower, an illustration of ambivalence: admiration laced with not-quite-contempt, a dependable source of humor.

And here he is at the beach, demonstrating ambivalence about his size by pretending to be a shrimp.

My brother was happy to join in the fun when my father’s mail order for pajamas (he always shopped in catalogues as though he were still back on the prairies) was mistaken for an order for a nightgown.

Note the fetching argyle socks. In another photo he is reading what he fancies is pretentious enough for my father to read: “The Brothers Karamozov.” I don’t know who among us read it (not me) but at least it was at hand.

On my father’s birthday it was great fun to tweak his horror of liquor, instilled (so to speak) in him by his own mother who was a fervent member of the WCTU. This bottle of “Old Croak” was really honey. All those books were indeed his and no, he hadn’t read them all. I read some of them. Mark did, too.

It was way too much fun for the honey to last very long. To Mark and Paul the whole prerequisite for alcohol was the proper glass -- brandy snifter or shot glass -- but then, straight from the bottle could work. Mark needs a brown paper bag.

We girls joined the fun when my father grew a mustache for the Oregon Centennial. The trouble was that his face was so red that the red mustache was hardly perceptible without a little tweaking. Me on the left, shirttail relative on the right.

Bruce Bennet Strachan was taken to be at least a potential intellectual and married my mother because she was smart. Both were oldest children (as am I) and both felt the weight of the economic Depression plus being Scots (my father) or Irish (my mother) enough to have problematic emotional genomes. The key to their success and mutual attraction was humor: oh, how they loved to joke around!

My mother’s tricks ran to scary stuff. When she was a kid, she and her sibs got home to the farm from church early one Sunday. They took the extra clothes that always hang at the back door of a farmhouse, stuffed them with newspaper and posed them in the parlor. “John, John,” shrieked my grandmother, “There’s a gang of ruffians lolling about in the house!”

One of the earliest Fourth of July picnics I can remember was just the family -- Paul maybe still in his buggy. We spread our repast somewhere on the shoulder of Mt. Hood and demolished the watermelon. When we were all logy and sleepy, my mother said she was going for a walk and set off into the brush. After a while, my father suggested we follow suit and led us down a path to a half-disintegrated barn. “Let’s so in and see what we can find,” he suggested, so we did. But there were a lot of strange noises: wailing, whistling, boards cracking and thumping, even things on the roof! Then shots rang out! We were terrified and ran back to warn our mother. She wasn’t there! Maybe the Whatsis got her!! In a while she came sauntering out of the brush, with firecrackers in her pocket. It was years before we figured out what happened.

In the last years we all lost our sense of humor, which is a big mistake. Everything seemed so life-or-death. The ridiculous-ness of mere mortals being so desperate for virtue, learning, and mutual understanding escaped us like air out of a tire and therefore we drove on our rims too much. Pretension can be deadly. I’m not quite sure how this came about. And I’m not sure I’ve escaped yet.

So what do I think about wealth and wickedness? I guess they’re interesting -- in moderation. In excess they're ridiculous.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


After ten years of teaching I’m a bit like an old fire horse who wants to run when she hears the alarm bell ringing. Likewise, after ten years of Unitarian ministry (more if you include my lay-years), in June I begin to think about the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. Once a genteel sort of chatauqua picnic in the neighborhood of Boston, it has become a huge media event very much influenced by where it is held -- which might be anywhere on this continent except Mexico. It is normally a masterpiece of organization and habit, though pretty various in the actuality.

One of the most memorable I attended was in Philadelphia, where I ditched the events long enough to visit the Museum of Natural History to see the mounted okapi diorama and to visit the Rodin museum, so underfunded that the grounds had not been weeded or cut and the air conditioning was windows standing open. It was like wandering into a slumbering enchantment with the smell of mimosa from a nearby grove drenching everything. At another moment, desperate for air conditioning, I ducked into a movie house showing “Caligula,” confident that no other ministers would be there. When my eyes adjusted, I spotted half-a-dozen. None female.

That was the time the RE director of the church made our housing arrangements and believed she had achieved a coup of economy by booking us at the YMCA, which had a floor for women. In our home church town, the YMCA was new and quite orderly. In Philadelphia it was a slice of real life. No air-conditioning, but a huge man-mountain of a black guard who monitored the elevator (the only access) and would not let dubious persons get on with us nice ladies. We moved when we discovered the bedbugs.

On another occasion the Rev. Riordan and I were in the little hotel shop when an old woman collapsed. She wasn’t with us; she was with a tour that had fed them box lunches evidently contaminated by food poisoning. Her bowels were determined to get it out of her system at once and she was mortified. Her daughter left to try to get help so Riordan and I tried to cope, seating her on a pile of newspapers which were quickly and repulsively drenched. The other ministers thought it was very funny and laughed like schoolboys while keeping their distance. The owner of the shop was greatly indignant at the lost sales so Riordan bought her damned newspapers -- all of ‘em.

A whole lot of hooking-up (Blackfeet would say “snagging”) goes on at GA. One woman was so efficient that certain ministers would find seats where they could watch the door to her room, making bets on how long it would be before the next privileged person came out, slightly mussed and yanking on his coat. It was a while before I figured out that one of my most beloved ministerial friends (NOT one of the old bulls from the PNWD) was going to bed with a different exceptionally beautiful young woman every night. He and I had long walks and talks in the afternoon. I asked him why he was doing that, esp. since he was quite happily married to a woman more beautiful than any of them. He said he “liked the variety.” He assured me his wife didn’t know and it didn’t affect their relationship. When he died of a heart attack -- quite young -- it turned out that she HAD known and had put up with it in spite of pain.

It didn’t occur to me to wonder why he didn’t try to seduce me, since I had established early that I didn’t do that because it is too emotionally confusing. But later I thought that the talking was the same thing and that what he craved was intimacy. Maybe that’s what took him into the ministry, esp. the intimacy of shared ideas. That was certainly what I was after, although it turned out after a number of years that this was more characteristic of the ministry than the laity. Many of the kind of laity who attended GA were after power. Ministers, too, but maybe not so much -- just enough to stay employed.

The Unitarian Universalist Association has a split root: the Unitarians being eggheads from New England who thought the Trinity made no sense and the Universalists being rural people from farther west who believed in a kind God as described in the New Testament. (Maybe you noticed that in the movie “There Will Be Blood,” the evangelist rails against Universalism.) On the basis of shared anti-Calvinism, they joined in my home town, Portland, Oregon, in 1961, and my father went over to see what it was about, but didn’t ever join the movement. (The ministerin the UU church in Portland at the time was Jewish.) The association of free congregations is open to the larger culture, disciplined mostly by vague principles and friendship networks, and inclined to vary wildly across the country. Put a California “hot tub” UU down in Kings Chapel in Boston and he or she will be totally confused. But very proud. The variety is a point of pride. At least until it comes down to specifics. Then there’s war.

When I was active there were about a thousand congregations, which is a small enough number for most people to know most people but too small for effective funding, so the Word went out from Boston and it was GROW. The denomination had taken two huge cultural hits that drove people away: one was the Vietnam War and one was the Black Liberation Movement. The War probably played out mostly congregation by congregation between those whose sons accepted the draft, honorably serving, and those who opposed the deaths of anyone’s sons at all. The Black struggle was much more of a General Assembly battle: people stole the microphones and fudged the money. Nice people always think that nice Black people will be just like them, except Black. NOT. Have you see the photos of Obama’s African family that are circulating? It’s a lot harder to be pluralist than anyone thinks. ANYONE.

But every June the UU’s get together, bravely and with great flurries of paper (I loved the daily “newspapers” that kept us on the same page), taped up sheets of newsprint, and not-so-magic markers -- I suppose by now largely superceded by bullet lists on laptops. I would be bored if I were there, and yet... yet... when the ministers -- some of them dear friends and some of them deadly enemies -- stood together to peal out “Rank by Rank Again We Stand”, I wept with emotion as I sang. My eyes are wet right now.