Don’t Ask For So Much

DSC 0064The memorial service for poor Max Lentz wasn’t the only connection between Missoula and West Virginia a week and a half ago. My parents, who recently moved from the longtime family home in the D.C. suburbs to a small college town in West Virginia, were here in Missoula for a visit. As everyone knows, there’s nothing like hosting out-of-town guests to help you see your surroundings in a new light. Of course, since my wife and I only arrived here in August, it’s not like we’re quite used to the place ourselves yet. But more on that in a minute. Meanwhile, it will help you understand what I’m about to write if you know that – in the way of many western U.S. towns – there are two mammoth white letters inscribed on the sides of two mountains on Missoula’s eastern edge, an “L” on Mount Jumbo and an “M” on Mt. Sentinel, so large that they are visible throughout the town and for miles beyond.

Now back to Max Lentz. The Missoula native attended high school at World Class Kayak Academy here in town. (This is as reported in the Missoulian.) Max was on an academy kayaking trip to West Virginia earlier this month when he attempted to navigate a section of rapids on the Upper Gauley River. The seventeen-year-old – described by one of his teachers as a highly skilled kayaker – was following a standard route, a route he had just watched other kayakers use without incident. But as Max slid through the chute, his kayak nosed into a rock crack and became wedged there, and the force of the rushing water held him down even as it batted his would-be rescuers away again and again from their desperate efforts to pull him free. The rescue, which commenced within minutes, eventually turned into a recovery, and four hours passed before his body could be pried from the river’s grip.

DSC 0161My parents set out across the country by train at just about the exact same time Max and his schoolmates must have boarded their plane for West Virginia. My parents traveled by sleeper car, the last civilized means of travel left to us. (Actually, my mother says that the coach seats didn’t look bad, either – remember, this is a different train from, say, the commuters that ply the D.C.-New York line. Really different. When we dropped them off at the Essex station near Glacier National Park at the end of the week, and I got my first up-close look at their train, it was like a silver castle rolling by on wheels, or something out of the 1950s-era Robert Heinlein/Airstream-trailer-influenced vision of the spaceships that we were all supposed to be driving by now. It’s called the Empire Builder, which seemed appropriate, even if – with our proconsuls and legions posted to Mesopotamia – it’s a name that makes you squirm just a little.)

DSC 0074A. and I drove up on Friday and met my parents at the Izaak Walton Inn near the little “town” of Essex, on the fringe of Glacier National Park. The inn has been in operation since the 1920s and functions almost as the de facto train station. The staff has to run out back and wave to the trains as they go by. The motto on the inn’s promotional materials is “Where time slows down and lets you catch up.” We caught up by reading in the lobby by the fire, walking in the woods, and taking leisurely meals in the inn’s restaurant, where a fine huckleberry cobbler is to be had.

DSC 0115Back in Missoula, with my parents quartered for the week in our guest room, we fell into a similarly relaxed routine. A. was off to work each day, of course. I would put in a few hours myself, then my parents and I would drive out to explore. We took walks, meandered through the UM campus, enjoyed lunch at Dauphine’s. One afternoon we stopped to read the names on the war-memorial statue by the grand old courthouse. As I hinted above, it was a little strange to be showing my parents around a town I barely feel like I know myself. They asked questions, and either I wouldn’t know the precise answer or my response took the form of pedantic, anthropological theories: “Well, I believe this may date back to the Populist era of the late 1800s…” Missoula doesn’t feel like home yet, and I don’t know if it ever will. Maybe it’s not dirty enough.

DSC 0124A week after they arrived, it was time to put my parents back on the train so that they could continue on their way to San Francisco, where my brother is now living. We collected A. from work a little early and drove back up to the Glacier National Park area, two and a half hours along winding blacktop, through the Indian reservations, past immense Flathead Lake, gazing ahead at mountaintops disappearing into and then poking out of the tops of the clouds. On the hillsides, thousands of fir trees poked up at the sky, shaped like sharpened pencils stuck point upward in the rocky ground.

DSC 0119My parents were the only ones boarding at West Glacier, where the station – which really only functions as a bookstore these days, apparently – closes each day at 4:30 p.m. So we waited for the 8:21 to Seattle in the dark, bundled against the cold, leaning under the station overhang to get out of the rain. While we waited, two freight trains idled on the tracks in front of us, and it was possible to imagine that there had been some sort of mixup, that my parents’ train couldn’t possibly make it through, or that it would slide past on an outer track and forget to collect these two passengers. But at the last minute the freights rumbled away and the aforementioned silver, castle-like, two-story glory of a train eased into view. A door opened in the side and a conductor popped out and asked for my parents by name. We hugged goodbye in the rain and watched them settle into their berth, two seats facing each other by a lighted window that suspended them before us in the dark, as if on a television screen. Then the train pulled away into the trees, and there was nothing to look at but the rain and the dark shapes of the trees in the park.

DSC 0116The first time I saw the name “Max Lentz” was on a riverfront stroll with my parents on their first day in Missoula, along the path in Caras Park. The name was written on a card affixed to a large vase of flowers that someone had left by the path near Brennan’s Wave, the brief bump of rapids in the downtown section of the river, where the kayakers practice. At that moment, “Max Lentz” didn’t mean anything to me, but I must have marked the name in some corner of my subconscious, because “Lentz” sounded familiar a few days later when my mother observed white letters spelling it out high on the side of Mount Jumbo. The “L” is always there, of course, but – sure enough – as we drove up Broadway from the UM campus on a sunny afternoon, we could see the smaller letters spelling out the rest of the name, small enough that it seemed possible, though unlikely, that they’d always been there and I just hadn’t noticed them yet. After my parents left, I read in the paper that his friends had put the letters there, just for a day or two, and that the “M” on Mt. Sentinel had likewise been amended briefly to read “Max.”

DSC 0139My mother and I had just walked the trail up to the “M” (letters “a” and “x” had not made their appearance yet). It was a strenuous walk, back and forth across steep switchbacks, pitched at an angle so that it was almost like walking up stairs the whole way up. We encountered a lot of other hikers. The only one panting worse than us was a black dog with white eye patches. From the trail and from the base of the “M” we had gazed out over Missoula, the streets of the university district marked out by neat rows of trees now wearing their final golden coats before winter. Looking over at Mt. Jumbo, my mother had asked what the “L” stood for.

I didn’t know, I told her. I just got here myself.

For Lentz, back on the Upper Gauley River, October 5th started out as just another day of doing what he loved. Then thump, his kayak inexplicably came to a stop and suddenly all of this water was rushing over him. I’ll leave it to you find your own lesson in this, but I’m just glad that I got to see my parents last week. All we know for sure about this uncertain world is that it is always later than you think.

DSC 0084

Wednesday, October 10

Wasps keep getting into the house. Big, nasty-looking wasps. We find them crawling disconsolately on the sliding door to the deck, or sometimes on the living-room window. They must be weak, ready to die, because they often do. Right now there are four dead wasps in the tracks of A.’s office windows and the deck door. My past practice was to suck the living ones into the vacuum cleaner, sneaking up behind them with the hose, closer and closer until they suddenly disappear into the guts of the machine with a rattle. “You can change the bag next time,” A. says. Now this feels cruel, so I’ve taken to catching them with a glass and releasing them outside. Of course, I botched my first effort to be “less cruel” and just about cut one of them in half with the glass I was using. While I thought about what to do next, I had a close-up view of the thing’s stinger, flexing and groping for something to hurt, and I think we can all identify. Who hasn’t felt that way? We think they might be getting in through the air conditioner, which we should cover up anyway with the onset of winter. So the wasp problem shouldn’t be a problem for long.

I worked until eleven a.m. or so and then drove my parents downtown. We strolled by the river, ate lunch at Dauphine’s, visited Fact and Fiction. It was 99-cent movie day at Crazy Mike’s video rental, so we stopped by to stock up. We strolled the new releases, and what a vomitous bunch of movies they were, but that’s Hollywood today: very smart people making awful movies that are designed to do nothing more than make money from certain segments of the population that can be expected to spend a lot of money renting awful movies. I found that I didn’t even need to slow down and look at titles until I spotted a movie that the store held only a few copies of. Most of those were crap, too, of course, but, in general, the fewer copies of a certain movie that a store carries, the higher the chances that I will be able to watch it without wanting to run out into the backyard, douse myself with gasoline, and set myself on fire.

One movie I picked was “The Agronomist,” Jonathan Demme’s documentary about the Haitian journalist Jean Dominique, who did his job – i.e., challenging the thieves and murderers who ran his country, from Mother Teresa’s good friend Duvalier, through the horrid General Cedras, and even including the initially well-intentioned Aristide – so well that he was gunned down by thugs a few years back. The movie was a one-night rental, so we watched it last night. I was expecting a bit of a broccoli movie, i.e., a movie you don’t enjoy watching but know you should. (You know, “eat your vegetables” and all that.) But the movie was transfixing, from interviews with the charismatic Dominique (an odd-looking man who was never far from his pipe), to footage of voudou ceremonies and street demonstrations, to the director’s unobtrusive narrative style in which the subjects are mainly left to speak for themselves except for occasional clarifying captions briefly explaining the context of a certain historical development. Out of many aspects of Dominique’s character and personal history that struck me, I was particularly affected by the way this man, educated in a French university, a film lover, a quoter of Shakespeare, an eloquent – even poetic – writer and speaker, demonstrates the important role of art in helping people to imagine a better world, even as he worked to give a voice to illiterate Haitian peasants, who it may be fair to describe as some of the most unfortunate people on earth. I highly recommend the movie if you’re the slightest bit curious about Haiti or journalism, although it may make it difficult to do mundane things the next day like, um, keep a pointless blog.

Tuesday, October 9.

DSC 0057On Friday it finally dawned on me that, for all the locals’ talk about recent winters being “much warmer than usual,” winter here will be nothing to take lightly.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s been getting cool already, temperatures dropping into the thirties at night and rising back into the fifties – occasionally maybe only the forties – during the day. When I first get up to type these entries I’m bundled in sweat pants, shirt, bathrobe, etc. I get dressed later in the morning, and in recent days I’ve found that jeans and a long-sleeved shirt isn’t always enough to keep me warm, even inside at my desk. The last few days of last week I ended up putting on a watch cap and my new vest (which I should tell you more about) just to get me through the late morning and early afternoon. Sutton, you ask, why not turn on the heat? And I answer two things. First, it’s only October, and things are going to get a lot worse before they get any better, so we don’t want to fall back on having heat too early. (What if, in the heart of winter, the heat doesn’t feel like enough as a result?) Second, and this is related to the first point, this house doesn’t have central heat, it has baseboard heaters, each controlled individually. Once we start using these things, I’m sure they won’t be that difficult to deal with, but for now they seem like an impossible pain in the ass, and that’s kept us from firing them up. It will also be fun to see the resulting electric bills once we finally do, although of course by “fun” I mean “the opposite of fun.”

Anyway, Friday was a cold, gray, drizzly day. I set out for class in a turtleneck (yes, me and Al Gore), my new vest, a light jacket (the one with the elbow patches, which I wear to look academic so that no one on campus suspects me for the interloper I am), a wool watch cap, plus the usual pants, shoes, etc. Not the warmest outfit I could have mustered, but still, it’s only October. As I made my hunched way across campus, collar turned up against the rain, I really felt cold. I looked at my “fellow” students and tried to gauge their reactions to the weather. Were they behaving as though the weather had finally turned?

Let’s just say I saw a lot of flip flops. I think it’s going to be a cold winter.

Friday’s lecture topic was the late-1800s feud between Montana copper baron Marcus Daly and William A. Clark (as in, I guess, the Clark Fork River that runs through the middle of town – one fun thing about studying history is learning the meanings behind all of the local place names), another captain of Montana industry. Both men had money, but the professor described Clark as “one of the richest men in the world at the time”; Daly was the founder of the Anaconda Mining Company, which at one point employed half of all Montanans. Historians don’t agree (as usual) as to the reason for the feud, but it was probably related to bad business dealings/rivalries and/or the fact that Daly was Irish Catholic and Clark Scottish Protestant (two classes of people not generally given to holding hands and singing rounds of “Kumbaya” together), not to mention Clark’s frequent public disparagement of one of Daly’s close friends and business partners, a man of Middle Eastern descent (!), as a “nigger.” Anyway, Clark would have given anything to become Montana’s first U.S. Senator, and Daly would have given anything to stop him. And later, after a pretty significant fight over that issue – a fight that grievously corrupted Montana politics for years and pretty much made the state a nationwide laughingstock – Daly would have given anything for “his” town of Anaconda to be named the state capital, while, basically to spite him, Clark wanted it to be Helena. Between the two men, over $1 million was expended in bribes, gifts (liquor and cigars), and advertising intended to shift public opinion on this issue one way or the other. But, when the vote came, people simply voted for the town closest to where they lived. Helena, boasting more residents, took the day, and all of that money turned out to have been spent for naught.

In the evening, I drove back to campus to pick A. up and we headed down to a barbecue being thrown by the Department of Biological Sciences in Kiwanis Park, close to downtown. It was still rainy and cold, but there was a pavilion, and, in addition to the various grills smoking away, someone had lit a fire in one of these saucer-shaped backyard-fire containers that seem to be all the rage these days, and so there was a spark of warm cheer to the event. Or was that because of the keg of beer? We spent a long time talking to a colleague of A.’s, and I learned that he has been teaching himself how to hunt with a bow (a traditional bow, no less). He plans a hunting trip soon, solo, to try his hand at bow hunting for elk, and another one to help a friend take a deer. The friend will be using a rifle, and he will help his friend flush the deer. I asked if I could tag along for the latter trip, and he said he didn’t see why not.

DSC 0154

This barbecue was unusual, so far in our Missoula sojourn, in that it involved no bear sightings. Not that we really expected there to be bears, since we were downtown and surrounded on all sides by either residential areas or the downtown business district, but it is a fact that, out of three barbecues we’ve been to so far, bears were spotted at two of them. And it is a fact that the area seems to be absolutely crawling with bears. I can’t be bothered to go back and make a formal study, but I’m pretty sure that it’s accurate to say that The Missoulian has carried at least one bear-related story per day for weeks. Not all of these involve actual attacks, but, when they don’t, the subject is the increasing encroachment by bears into areas they once steered clear of. This is their hyper feeding season, when they desperately try to pack on the pounds in order to be able to hibernate all the way through the winter, and of course there is less and less food for them as the planet continues its not-so-slow slide into environmental ruin. I already mentioned the bear shot in Idaho a few weeks back, the first grizzly spotted there since 1946. An update on that story informs us that this bear can be determined through genetic evidence to have traveled over 160 miles to reach that area, which can partly be chalked up to the wanderlust that some grizzlies feel (though this wandering was over three times longer than what’s typical), but of course food scarcity has to be taken into account as well.

The bear stories made such an impression on me that, for this past weekend’s trip to Glacier National Park (on which more later), I decided to pick up a can of bear spray, i.e., pepper spray specially formulated for use against bears (I think mainly because it discharges in a 30-foot “shotgun-cloud” pattern). I wondered if I were being paranoid. We never ran into any bears, as it turned out (well, just the one dressed as a Montana State Trooper in the hotel lobby, but he seemed friendly enough), but just this morning I was leafing through The Missoulian when I saw this headline: “Carroll Student Attacked by Bear.” (It seemed intent on eating him, until a friend fired a pistol and it ran off.) And on the article’s jump page, there was a smaller item about a hunter in Yellowstone who killed another attacking grizzly with a pistol, which, from everything I’ve heard on the subject of shooting grizzlies using anything other than a powerful rifle, is really only possible if you can aim your shot up through the roof of the bear’s open mouth. (In Into the Woods, author Bill Bryson, while he is outfitting himself to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail, overhears a gun-store owner offer to file the sights off of the handgun that a customer has just announced he is purchasing for bear defense, because – the gun-store owner explains – it will then hurt less when the bear takes it away and shoves it up the guy’s ass.) And last night I was flipping through the local “alt-weekly,” the Missoula Independent, where I saw mention of “frequent black-bear sightings” in town, especially in yards that boast unharvested apple trees and, of course, around unsecured trash cans. And yesterday evening, we were walking on a trail through Moose Can Gully, a quarter-mile from the house, surrounded on all sides by houses, when two kids we encountered (chopping down trees with an axe, curiously enough) told us excitedly that they had seen bear scat and “signs” in the gully. So now, I’ve gone from wondering if I were being paranoid in planning to take bear spray along to Glacier, to wondering if I should carry it with me at all times.

Oh, and, in other news, a sex offender disappeared from his work-release job yesterday. The article was headlined “Search is on for escaped sex offender,” but I think it should have read “Madman on the loose” because that’s the guy’s actual last name.

See you Tuesday

I will be in Glacier National Park all weekend, fighting grizzly bears, “godless killing machines” that they are. So no posts until Tuesday morning. See you then!

I was standing on the deck in my bathrobe, throwing rocks at a cat, when I realized I was standing on the deck in my bathrobe, throwing rocks at a cat. I paused as I was about to launch the third one, but the cat had disappeared behind the pine tree. I piled the leftover rocks on the railing and retired indoors. I had been sitting at the table, trying to read The Missoulian, when Zuzu had made the discovery that there are other cats in Montana, after all. Her ongoing observations through the sliding-glass door, the window behind the couch, and window in my office had so far reassured her that, however unpleasant the move from Baltimore had been, at least we had left all other cats in the world behind. But suddenly, in the gray light of dawn, here was another cat, white-socked and arrogant, just standing down there on the grass and looking blandly up at the window while Zuzu – unable to abide the thought that she is not the sole representative of her species on this earth – huffed and growled her displeasure.

At first this was funny. It always is. How unfortunate it is for cats that their expression of utmost, deepest anger sounds essentially ridiculous to human ears (not to mention that the little mewing sounds they make for attention sound like the brattiest imaginable whining noise, so that while they are telling you they wish you could all spend a little more quality time together, you are trying to remember where you put the drowning sack).

But it got old. It always does. I kept shooing Zuzu off of the back of the couch, hoping to divert her attention, but she kept bounding back up, back arched eight inches above her head, otherworldly wails issuing from her mouth.

I realized the only way I was going to get any peace, so that I could continue reading the front-page article about local city-council candidates being forced to perform the chicken dance at a local pre-election event “aimed at [the] younger generation” (aren’t you old folks jealous?), would be to temporarily take up arms in Zuzu’s name. I went out the front door in my bathrobe and gathered some of the “river rocks” that the condo association keeps stocked in the flower beds next to each unit’s driveway and walked back through the house and out onto the deck. The cat was still standing next to a fence a few units down and looked curiously up at me. Zuzu had followed me to the sliding-glass door. Kill it! Kiiiillllll it! she wailed, or noises to that effect. What had I gotten myself into, I wondered, my hand shaking, sweat beading on my brow. Was this really the right thing to do? Or was Zuzu manipulating me to do her evil bidding?

I picked out my first rock and raised my arm. As soon as I did, the cat took off running. (Someone must have thrown rocks at him before.) It wouldn’t be long before the cat would reach the cover of the large pine tree out behind the units, but I had lost my stomach for grim violence so early in the morning, and so my throw was halfhearted and half calculated to miss. My second rock also went wide, and I cannot say I was sorry, although Zuzu looked at me suspiciously as I reentered, as if wondering just how committed I really was to the cause.

I ignored her, sat back down at the table, and turned to an article about hunters reloading their own ammunition (i.e., they pick up their old shell casings, buy new bullets, i.e., the little thing that actually gets fired out of the barrel, and then repack the shell with powder), which apparently saves them quite a lot of money, in addition to letting them customize how much powder is in each shell in order to, say, reduce wear and tear on the barrel of an antique rifle, or increase the striking power for large game, and so on. The headline was “Adding Life to Bullets.” I take this as yet another sign that we really are in gun country. Other signs spotted so far include:

  • The fellow we met on the Canyon Falls trail near Hamilton a few weekends back, striding along with his kids (excited four-year-old boy clutching a small container of water that, from the way he handled it and gazed into it, probably contained some specimen of the local fauna that he had scooped from the creek; excited eight-year-old boy dragging several massive branches behind him; and tragically bored twelve-year-old girl bringing up the rear, listening to an iPod), wearing a large, silver revolver in a black nylon shoulder holster. I asked one of our hiking companions – not a local, but someone who has lived here for a while – if this was, strictly speaking, legal. She shrugged and said, “as long as it’s not concealed.” I offered that the Forest Service, whose land we were on, might have a different opinion. She told me that “gun laws in Montana are mostly theoretical.”
  • The sign at the front door of Sportsman’s Warehouse, a huge sporting-goods (a term which, in these parts, heavily implicates hunting) store in one of the Reserve Street strip malls: “If you plan to remove your handgun from the holster while in the store, ensure that it is unloaded and the breech open before entering.” (Is it my imagination, or do I hear something of an implied threat behind those words, sort of similar to the way the gunner’s mates at the Coast Guard shooting ranges – their fingers lightly caressing the butts of the sidearms they habitually wore – sternly advised us not to turn from our firing lanes with an unholstered weapon in hand?) Meanwhile, back behind Sportsman’s Warehouse’s gun counter, veritable acres of wall space were given over to row upon row of handguns hanging from hooks, easily several hundred of the things in view, in dozens of shapes, varieties, and colors.
  • The full-color ads in the daily paper, touting rifles, handguns, and ammo. Only today, I noted that a “great junior or women’s rifle” was available from a local outfitter for only $319, while apparently a basic Remington twelve guage gauage gauge (WHY can I never remember how to spell that word?!) can be had in these parts for around $250.

Later in the day, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get Gmail to let me choose between two different “signatures” (the little block of information, usually containing one’s title, email address, phone number, etc., that appears automatically at the bottom of a new email you are composing). Why, you might ask, do I need two different signatures? Because a client of mine would like me to use an email address based on her business’s internet domain when I do work on her behalf, so that, essentially, I will look like an employee of hers when I email her clients.

But I didn’t want to have to check a second email account, worried that I might forget and therefore miss some essential message. (Also I am just lazy.) So I had this client set up my account (which we’ll call “”) to forward to my Gmail account (which we’ll call “”). This meant that any message sent to my address would show up in my Gmail inbox, where I would be guaranteed not to miss it, since I check my Gmail inbox approximately every thirty seconds throughout the day.

Next, I was able to set up Gmail so that I could respond to these messages as “” as well (as opposed to “,” the usual return address). The basic framework of what I needed was now in place. The problem was that I also wanted a different signature for each account, so that, (1) when I send a message as “,” the signature block will include my personal contact info and web site, but (2) when I send a message as “,” the signature block would include’s contact info and web site. Strangely, Gmail does not offer this option; as far as they are concerned, the only way to use more than one signature would be to type or paste them in each time I compose a message. (I guess they’re too busy planning to colonize the moon to come up with useful features like this.

But since I use Firefox’s web-browsing software, and since Google’s products are “open source,” meaning that they publish the nuts and bolts of how these products work, meaning in turn that thousands of geeky computer types can create add-ons and modifications to these products, I was able to add what’s called a “script” that changes how the Gmail web site behaves for my email account. First I had to add the Firefox script manager, Greasemonkey. Then, via Lifehacker, a wonderful blog that covers “tips and downloads for getting things done,” I found the “Multiple Signatures in Gmail” script written by a developer who goes by the on-line moniker of “Choonkeat.” This was easy enough to install – like any of these add-ons, you just click on a link – but, because it had to generate my specific signatures, I did have to open the script (sort of similar to the source code of a web site) and insert my signature information, which was extremely frustrating until I realized that you cannot use an apostrophe in the text of your signature, since whatever scripting language is in use reads apostrophes as programming language, not text, and it bollocks up the whole process. After an embarrassingly long time, however, I finally figured it all out, and now I can easily switch identities and signatures within my Gmail webmail browser window.

So I was definitely ready for a Pabst Blue Ribbon (ah, Natty Boh, how I miss you) and episode two of this season of “The Office,” still essentially the only television show A. and I make any effort to watch. (I mean, I’ll turn on “Family Guy” from time to time, but if the baby or the dog are too long coming on-screen, I tend to get bored. And we can’t seem to adjust to tuning in “The Simpsons” at seven p.m., which is when it comes on out here in the hinterland if you can believe it. But on a related note, one could easily get into watching the various “Late Shows” out here, because they all start around ten p.m. I mean, I haven’t gotten into it, but one could.) Two of A.’s Bird Camp colleagues joined us. Really, the only reason A. stopped and bought PBR on the way home was because one of these colleagues is known to prefer “cheap beer,” so it was like something out of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi” when they turned up with a six-pack of a local microbrew, purchased only “because A. likes fancy beer.”

Anyway, “The Office” was good, although I wonder if they are overdoing it with these hour-long episodes. As short as the show used to seem, the hour-long ones can feel a little indulgent, and the rhythm and pace seems to fizzle after a while. Don’t get me wrong, the show is still top notch, and it’s not like I wasn’t happy to look at the clock at eight thirty and see that there was still another half hour to go. I wouldn’t say that the show is currently at the peak of its comedic powers, but the writers seem to me to be doing a good job maneuvering the extremely tricky point they are at in the overall story arc and the various characters’ development (i.e., the Jim-and-Pam romance, which, if mishandled, could really easily turn the show maudlin and pointless).

No word from my parents, who I think should have reached their hotel near Glacier National Park last night. We join them Saturday, in preparation for which I have been brushing up on my bear-fighting techniques. I might even buy some pepper spray today. I really don’t think I’m being paranoid, but I’ll put off briefing you on local ursine news until tomorrow.


One thing that’s been keeping me busy over the last few days has been putting the finishing touches on my professional web site. Check it out here if you’re interested, and please pass my name along if you hear of anyone looking for a freelance writer/editor.

The “L” Word

No, not that one.

Author Linda Hirshman has an interesting post up at TPM Cafe on “Liberal Principles” (it’s part one of three). Or at any rate I find it interesting, because I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about what my principles are, and it’s interesting to hear some thought about what the actual philosophy of modern political liberalism might be. As intriguing as her arguments are, I sort of like what one commenter proposed: liberals are simply for democracy and the rights of man.

I can go with that for now.

“So what sort of business do you run from out of your home?” asked the chimney guy. We were in the check-writing stage of his visit, and I’d earlier told him to yell for me when he was done because I’d be downstairs in my office. He didn’t seem very impressed by “writer and editor,” and the conversation wended its way to my recent arrival here in Missoula. “How’d you know I wasn’t from around here?” I asked. “Just a guess,” he laughed. But really, how did he? The story of the move included my now-standard refrain that the reason behind it had been “so that my wife could take her dream job.” Naturally, he wanted to know what that job was. “Wildlife biology research,” I said.

“Wolf lover, huh?” he asked.


Yesterday was a class day, i.e., the Montana-history class I’m “informally auditing” at the university. I left home a little early, though, so that I could drop the car off at the mechanic again. We’d brought it in last Friday because of a rubbing noise in the front wheels that had been growing louder, and the Master Tech – Toyotas Only guy had called back after a few hours to ask, “is this car from the east coast or something?” He could tell by what he described as “rust everywhere” underneath, including – the source of the rubbing – such badly corroded brake rotors that the rust was in constant contact with the pads. (This is a gift, I guess, of Baltimore’s practice of utterly coating the roadways with corrosive salt at the first sight of a snowflake, which, thank god, I guess they don’t do out in these parts.) But the rubbing sound was still there, I noticed early this week, so I dropped it off yesterday and then walked to class, by way of a little pizza place where you can get $1 slices. (Too much sauce, though.) The walks to and from class suggested to me that I need to take some time to get out and walk the streets of some of these downtown neighborhoods. Interesting old houses, some of them dating to the 1880s (according to a plaque I noticed), plus after only a few minutes of walking I found myself starting to get a feel for the city – a feel of both actually living in it but also a sense of the city’s personality – that’s been missing so far, since I’m mostly confined to our compound up on the hill.

But someone has to guard the compound.

In class, we’re up to 1900, when the population of Montana was around 243,000, up from 143,000 only a decade earlier (and up from only a few thousand not much longer before that). Yesterday’s class was, among other things, “myth-dispelling day,” the professor keen to shatter two stereotypes that exist about early Montana (and which he admitted believing himself when he first moved here, five and a half years ago): that the state was originally a backwoods backwater, and that it was settled entirely by “white Americans.” Apparently, Montana was a very urban society at the time, in the sense that the vast majority of residents lived in cities (“cities” that were as small as 1,000 people, but, as the professor rightly pointed out, a city with a 1,000 people in it was a significant accomplishment on such a remote frontier). (And, by the way, it is still the case that the vast majority of Montanans live in cities: this professor claims that a higher proportion of Montanans live in cities than the proportion of New York state residents who do, although good luck convincing anyone that this makes Montana “more urban” than New York.) Next, Montana was mostly populated by the “foreign born” or their children, who made up just over 50 percent of the population. When you count just the “foreign born” themselves (excluding their children who were born here), they still constituted fully 28 percent of the population. By way of comparison, the nationwide rate of “foreign born” residents was only 13 percent. So, in this sense, Montana in 1900 was much more diverse than the nation as a whole. They even had 13 Koreans.

This is the state that mining built, so here is a short history of mining in Montana: the first mineral mined was gold (first discovered here in the 1860s), which exists in nature in pure form and so can be found in significant amounts by independent miners and small operations, particularly in Montana where it was basically just lying around on the ground or in the bottom of streams. As gold was tapped out, in the early 1870s, miners switched to silver. This is found mostly underground and does not exist in pure form, so extracting it requires a somewhat larger, more technologically sophisticated mining and then smelting operation. Once the silver started running out, miners switched to copper, which is buried deepest of all and isn’t worth as much as the other two metals, by far. So mining operations needed to become immense in order to take advantage of economies of scale. The most significant mining operation out here was the Anaconda mine (it had its own town, which still bears that name today); at one point, more than half of the state’s residents got their paychecks from Anaconda. Anaconda followed the pattern of corporatization followed by all industries at this time, first going public and then starting to “vertically integrate,” again necessitated by the low cost of copper: they built a railroad to transport their ore to market, bought their own timber tracts (for mine-tunnel bracing material), bought their own coal mines for fuel for their smelters, etc. By 1900, Montana mining was virtually all for copper, dominated by a small number of massive companies, as opposed to the rag-tag early independent miners who came for the gold.

All of this led to quite the transformation: Butte, the main mining city (Missoula developed a little later, mostly driven by the timber industry) was described in 1870 by one historian as “a scattering of wretched buildings.” By 1900, it had electricity, streetcars, an amusement park, streets lined with handsome brick buildings that still exist today, skyscrapers (i.e., steel-frame buildings that could therefore be taller than four stories), the second-largest red-light district in the country (after – natch – New Orleans). (This last tidbit allowed the professor to remake what seems to be one of his favorite points: the high rates of prostitution in the old west didn’t exist because the people were any more “immoral” than anyone else, there was just a massive shortage of women compared to men, resulting in the commercialization of “domestic chores” through the establishment of boarding houses, laundries, restaurants, and houses of prostitution. Interesting way of looking at it.) And forty-two languages were spoken on the streets of Butte in 1900…

Toward the end of class, the girls (which really seems a fair description of this particular trio, even if they are 18) started whining and shifting in their seats. “It’s time to go,” one of them called out, about a minute before the hour (which is when the class ends). I’d heard them fidgeting and complaining about not being able to keep up with the professor’s lecture in their note-taking (and let me just say this is a very easygoing lecturer), calling him a “dork” when he said something about “trying like the dickens” to locate some historical fact, etc. I guess I wasn’t so different when I was their age (which is one reason I had the sense to leave Bard early: no sense being in that much debt if I could barely be bothered to pay attention), but it sure is strange to be sitting in that class as a non-paying interloper, fascinated, wishing the guy could talk longer, only to hear these paying students behind me both barely able to function and also just desperate for the class to be over.

I had just left class and was walking over to drop by A.’s office when Will the mechanic called. The car was really, really fine he told me. The rubbing noise, it turned out, was the result of whoever had installed our new tires forgetting to apply a lubricant where the edge of the tire meets the rim, and so what I was hearing was just a constant “squeak” of rubber on metal. It wouldn’t cause any damage, he said, and, since the only way to fix it would be remove the tires, he didn’t recommend taking any action “unless it’s really driving you crazy.”

It isn’t.

On my way home from the mechanic, I stopped to buy a new DVD player (our old one didn’t survive the move, one of the few casualties) and some fireplace tools. At the first place I stopped for the DVD player, I was reminded – in the course of a conversation about our A/V “setup” – that our TV will no longer receive open-air signals after March, when it all goes digital. The guy who was talking to me simply assumed that this meant we would need to upgrade, at least by getting a digital-translating “box,” but inwardly I was thinking, “sweet, no more temptation to watch television.” As I type, however, I’m remembering that “The Office” is on tonight, which I’d hate to have to miss. Ah, the conflicts, the duality of man.

In the evening, we tried out the fireplace while tweaking the financial spreadsheet. Zuzu the cat seemed to think we were out of our minds. The new poker worked great.

What’s my problem? What’s so difficult about jotting a few notes here from time to time? I guess one problem is the new freelance lifestyle, which on the one hand theoretically gives you more free time (in the sense of time that isn’t planned for you), yes, but on the other hand it’s hard to let yourself not work. Not that I’m cracking the whip all the time, but, when you’re planning your own time, sometimes it’s hard to plan time for things that don’t feel productive.

Excuses, excuses. (Though, just for the sake of the record, I’ll point out that the involved diary entries I was doing in the spring and summer took about two hours a day, and I do have some other personal projects going. All right. Enough.)

I heard from my parents last night. They were sitting in the train station in Cumberland, Maryland, at the start of their old-world-style journey by train to San Francisco by way of Missoula and back again. They’ll arrive at the train station near Glacier National Park on Thursday, and A. and I will drive up to meet them and stay a night or two on the weekend. I’m not sure if A.’s and my difficulties with air travel this summer are their only inspiration for using the train, but it was ironic that, when they called, their train was delayed an hour and a half.

The fall has turned cool here, with temperatures dropping down into the thirties at night due to an influx of “cool, Pacific air.” Told you we’re really in the northwest, at least weather-wise. Yesterday we had the chimney cleaned, and, in the evening, I spent an hour driving around looking around for some place that sells bundled firewood. Turned out to be a little early in the season for this to be a feature of “every shopping center,” as I’d blithely assured A. would be the case, but I finally found some at the Albertson’s on Reserve, close to the highway.

Then we forgot to light the fire because The War was coming on, and we barely had time to heat up some soup and toast some bread before the first haunting strains of Wynton Marsalis’s theme music were coming over the television’s speakers. What a series, or “film,” as they insist on calling it. We missed the first three episodes, although it seems they will be replaying the series on Wednesdays for the rest of October. Does that start tonight? I’ll have to check. If you missed it, I recommend tuning in. Just think: you can become steeped in facts and sensory details from this important period without even having to crack a book. And there is something about the careful accounting of battle after battle – with casualty numbers – that helps you get past the cartoon of “the good war” and realize that one war does not vary much from another (though I was struck by the film’s final salute to the men and women “who fought and won this necessary war”; they do vary in that sense, but, as they say, “elections have consequences”). Yes, this would be a good series for the kids to watch, to get across the idea that war – even a “good” war – is still just about noise and terror and fire and blood and maggots everywhere, with no one knowing what’s going on (including, sadly often, the generals ordering their men into a meatgrinder). As my grandfather told my mother, you just hide and try to survive until the guy next to you gets shot and then you go berserk.

I will say that I don’t know how many more times I can stand to hear Tom Hanks (now settling comfortably into his incarnation as the personification of “greatest generation” smugness) intone, “Al McIntosh, Rock County Star-Herald.” The New Yorker compares Mr. McIntosh’s columns to “the monologues of the Stage Manager in Our Town,” but this is clearly just a bone the magazine is throwing to the red states out of a reflexive fear of being perceived as eastern and effete. (Too late!) I found most of the quotes from Mr. McIntosh’s columns to be pure self-satisfied country pabulum (particularly – and how apt! – his sneer at the exuberance with which New Yorkers reacted to the news of victory in Europe, as compared to the “dignity” with which Luverne residents simply closed up their shops and went home for the day). It’s like someone sent James Lileks back in time. Don’t get me wrong, I like me some James Lileks from time to time (I’d even point to his on-line diary as something of an inspiration for this one), but he’s not exactly the person you’d want making pronouncements for the ages sixty years from now. (As opposed to me, of course.)

We’re not the only ones with something to watch. A. finally hung her bird feeder near the deck, and I moved Zuzu the cat’s bed over to the sliding door so that she can recline in comfort while staring intently at the birds’ comings and goings, an activity that keeps her occupied for, seemingly, hours at a time, although no doubt with frequent nap breaks. This is in between episodes of howling mournfully as she wanders from room to room; then there is her frequent practice of thundering back and forth across the living-room floor, which is directly above my head when I’m sitting in my office. Who knew an eight-pound cat could make so much noise? I have no idea if these activities are new, or whether she always used to do this when the house was empty. But I’ll keep observing her, and you’ll be the first to hear what I find out.

Al McIntosh, Rock County Star-Herald.