A Report from Missoula in September

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Monday was my deadline for a freelance project that had me working like a madman throughout the weekend. I’d thought I was over the hump on this project when I’d completed most of the text. “All” that was left was document layout, a thought that did not strike as much fear in my heart as it should have, especially when the software specified by the client was Microsoft Word. I have no particular respect for Microsoft products, of course, but I had not a clue just how badly things were about to go for me. The main problem was the fact that this document needed to include about 90 informational graphics, sized precisely and positioned neatly on the page. Anyone who has ever wrestled with image or table placement in Word knows where this is going. I’ve complained about Word here before, so I won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that, at around 3 p.m. last Friday, I was almost done making last-minute changes to these graphics and actually thought that layout would only take another hour or two longer. I worked on it until almost midnight, went to bed, got up early Saturday, and worked for the next 17 hours before I was done. Then another 13 hours of rereading, another 8 or so hours of correcting the mistakes discovered by that rereading, and, finally, delivery of the finished document late on Monday.

So goes the freelance life: work through three weekends in a row, madly scrambling to make a deadline. Then, suddenly, it’s like you’re a student after finals, free to get more than four hours of sleep in a night, free to actually make plans for a Saturday afternoon with your wife. I would say free to structure your days however you want, but of course that’s really up to the boss, my conscience, who wants me to have everything complete on my freelance portfolio and professional web site by this coming Friday, so that I can commence a campaign of bothering several dozen prospective clients with the news of how great I am and how great it is that they will no longer have to struggle along without me. Plus another project is already commencing… We’ll see how it feels when the work gets really lean and the wolves are at the door, but for now I can say that I can’t imagine a better way to live. I’m starting to see how I can fit a decent amount of my own writing into each day (this hasn’t become an established pattern yet, but it’s starting), and it feels simply wonderful to be able to head out for the afternoon to, say, a seminar at the Montana Festival of the Book, which blew into town on Thursday, or, say, the thrice-weekly history lecture (history of Montana) I snuck into for the first time this week and which I hope to make a regular thing. (The boss allows this use of time because he feels that, the more I know about this state and its history/challenges/undercurrents/riptides, the better able I’ll be to find freelance work in the area.)

For similar reasons, last week we also started a daily subscription to the Missoulian, the local newspaper. In addition to the important local news that might actually help me get work (e.g., the state of the schools, public-health issues, the city’s master plans for development, etc.), this also helps me keep abreast of truly interesting items, such as the fact that the first grizzly bear in some 30 years was recently spotted in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, which happens to be our ecosystem as well. Not to worry, though: (1) said “ecosystem” extends all the way into Idaho, which is where the bear was spotted, and (2) the person who spotted it shot it, too. He’d been hunting black bear, which is legal to do, and, when a bear-shaped animal wandered into his scope, he just pulled the trigger. Species identification was made post-mortem, so to speak. The fish and wildlife officer quoted in the article said the hunter “seemed to be really sorry.”

Another interesting news item concerns the continuing mystery surrounding the disappearance of a middle-aged woman while hiking near the Bear Creek Overlook, west of Victor. She was there with a male companion, who says he turned his back on her for less than a minute to take in the view from the overlook. When he turned back around, she was nowhere to be seen and has not been seen since. Police are keen to talk to two young men seen driving an older SUV in the area, though they emphasize that they have no suspects or leads. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Taking the paper also means getting to read the comics every morning. It’s a small paper with a small comics page, but the selection is decent. No Get Fuzzy, but at least the page offers Pearls Before Swine. Since we’re in a red state, though, the page also carries Mallard Fillmore, the dull-witted wannabe-political-cartoon. The subtext of the “humour” in pretty much every strip seems to be something like “there are liberals in the world and they are stupid.” This past week’s strips included one that managed to both express disapproval of the youth fashion of baggy, sagging pants and suggest that Iranian spies are at work within our borders, stealing our secrets. (Of course, Iranian spies are at work within our borders, just as are British spies, Israeli spies, Russian spies – but for MF to pick Iranian spies for the particular, non-Middle-East-related joke being made shows a little too much fondness for White House-brand Kool Aid for my taste.) And then there was one about how, on September 11th, we said “everything would be different,” but then recently the New York Times printed news of a plot to “blow up planes at JFK airport” on “page 37” (possibly because the “plot” had been hatched by mental defectives without the capability to actually do anything they were planning to do) so, when you vote this fall, make sure you vote for someone who knows “what changed.” (These aren’t exact quotes, but I’ve thrown out the paper and the online archives for last week aren’t available yet.) In other words, yet another expression of the tired view that holds that there are two kinds of people in America, (1) those who understand that the country faces considerable threats from some very nasty people, and (2) Democrats. Thanks, Mallard, nice living in civil society with you.

Friday night found us at our second BBQ since arriving in Missoula. Like the first, this one also included a bear. We were at A.’s boss’s house, far out from the city in an undeveloped area of hills and forests and sparsely scattered houses. A. and I and a couple of others were in the basement admiring the professor’s temperature-and-humidity-controlled “wine vault” when the word came: “there’s a bear outside and it’s coming around the back.” We all rushed out onto the back patio for a look (I made sure to keep plenty of people between me and the bear). According to the professor, it was a yearling, just old enough to be on its own but not yet old enough to know better than to approach human settlements like this. It stood only a little taller than my parents’ German Shepherd. The humans and the bear watched each other for a minute or two before the visitor headed off into the woods and we headed back into the kitchen for more wine.