New Features

I’m going to try to put up a new picture every day by about 7 a.m. mountain time.

Also, some new sidebar features:

  • Calendar: Days on which I’ve posted are bolded, gray, and italicized. Clicking on them takes you to the post or posts from that day.
  • Recent Posts: Lists titles of and links to, well, recent posts.
  • Tags: Now that I’ve upgraded to WordPress 2.3.1, I can “tag” each post with words related to the subject, and these tags will show up in the left sidebar in the aforementioned “Tags” section. You can click on the tag to see all the posts it’s associated with; the bigger the tag, the more posts it connects to. (I’ve only tagged the last few posts, so there’s not much to find yet.) So far I’m doing this pretty randomly, but I think I’ll need to come up with some principles to guide my tagging choices so that you’ll find more than just a fleeting mention when you click.
  • Recent Comments: Links to recent comments.


Notes on a Late-November Snow

This one snuck up on us. I was on my way out to the library yesterday when A. looked out the window and said “is that snow?” It was, but it was so small I could barely see it and it certainly wasn’t accumulating. In other words, it looked like the kind of “snow” we’d gotten used to in Baltimore. I drove to the library and checked out an armload of books, and by the time I was driving home the snow still wasn’t amounting to much. It wasn’t until we were about to turn in that we noticed that the snow had been steadily mounting up all evening, at least two or three inches’ worth on the deck and deck railing and on the heavy branches of the blue spruce out back, although it still didn’t seem to be sticking to any actual concrete.

When I got up this morning I noticed (1) a lot more snow on the deck and (2) that it was still snowing. I took the pictures I posted below not much later; as you easterners can see, we’re talking about an amount of snow that would cripple Baltimore for three or four days. Though last night we’d joked about whether A. would get a snow day, my first instinct this morning was that she had a decent shot. I fired up the laptop to check the university web site. But I began to remember that we live in Montana now as I searched and searched and not only couldn’t find a cancellation or closure notice, I couldn’t even find the place where such a notice would be, like “click here for weather closing information” or “campus will open on time today, Monday, November 19.” In other words, not only would A. not get a snow day today, the locals weren’t even considering it as a possibility. This was further underlined when A. called the Mountain Line to see if her bus would be running. The response was along the lines of “ummmmmm… why wouldn’t it be?”

There are all kinds of good reasons not to shut down here for a storm that would have easterners panicking and hoarding toilet paper: people are used to this kind of weather here, there are a lot more plowing companies ready to go to work, if you shut down for every couple-of-inch snowstorm in Montana you wouldn’t get a lot done, etc. We easterners are supposed to be pansies for shutting down so easily, which I wrote about almost a year ago. I came across another interesting viewpoint in a book my father gave me for my birthday this fall, a collection of the journalist Pete Dexter’s columns called Paper Trails. Dexter, who was raised in South Dakota, describes witnessing a car accident in Philadelphia, during a blizzard.

“A car was coming out of a gas station, another car wasn’t going to let it in. They came together at maybe two miles an hour, looking right at each other, and then they bumped fenders.”

He continues:

“Thirty inches of snow can fall on Vermillion, South Dakota, and people get around. Six inches stops everything in Philadelphia or New York [or Baltimore]. The reason isn’t that Vermillion has more snowplows or less cars. The reason is that in Vermillion, South Dakota, people give each other a little room.”

This certainly rings true, speaking as someone who still can’t get used to how willing the drivers here are to look for and stop for pedestrians, not to mention how you can actually just go 40 MPH in a 35 MPH zone and no one behind you seems to be about to explode with apoplexy. I had a friend in Baltimore who went off to Richmond for law school and developed a technique for spotting fellow Baltimoreans based on how angry they always seem, which made sense to me. Combined with their lack of practice driving in snow, those certainly aren’t people with whom you want to be sharing slippery roads.

Still, A. and I grew up on the east coast and snow feels like a holiday to us, so A. was sad to have to head out to work, and I’m not finding it any easier to get my head in the game here at home. Light flakes drifting down, mini-avalanches coming off of tree branches, birds making little trenches as they alight on the layer covering the deck railings. Compared to what I’m used to of late, this is a lot of snow, and it’s still mounting up.

Maybe I’ll just go check how much toilet paper we have.

I Search Only For What Eludes Me

DSC 0152The first mile along the gravel road that might or not be the right road is always the most difficult. There’s the fear that the nine-year-old Toyota Corolla will not prove up to the rough surface. What if we break down? Will we have to capture the llama standing guard over a flock of sheep a few fields back to protect us from wolves as begin the long slog back to town? There’s also the vague sense of trespass, exacerbated by the knowledge that most everyone in these parts has guns. But I take comfort, somehow, in the speed limit signs, token representatives of civic government, like little embassies, assuring us that we are in a public place after all and can count on the right of free passage, provided of course that we do not exceed forty miles an hour. Gradually the rumble of gravel under the tires fades into the background. As for the wolves, well, we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

And suddenly these thoughts are swept away by the exhilaration of discovery, success, like what Peary must have felt when a second and third check of his instruments confirmed that he was standing at long last on the North Pole. There, at the five-mile mark, just where it should be if (1) this is the right road and (2) I’m reading distance on the map correctly, the long-sought goal: ten or so silver silos and a jumble of long low cream-colored dormitory-like structures on the right side of the road, substantial modern buildings that are a far cry from the modest, weather-beaten, barely-there ranch houses we’ve seen along this road so far. The outpost of a religious sect whose members are “highly skilled agriculturists, formidably competitive with family farmers and ranchers” if ever there was one.

The road turns sharply to the south, just like the map says it should. Tucked into the corner of a field, just inside the fence, as final confirmation, a sign: “New Rockport Colony.”

Also: “Disease Control Program.”

Also: “Keep Out.”

We stare down the road into the colony for a long minute, and then, since we have no particularly compelling reason to ignore this sign, A. backs the car around and points us back toward Choteau and our motel. On the way, we cross paths with the first vehicle we’ve seen on this road, a big blue Ford pickup headed for the colony. The driver, a shadow in a broad-brimmed hat behind the tinted glass nods and waves as he passes. Technically we have failed, but my heart is light and full of song for the glorious beauty of this particular gravel road in this particular state at this particular moment in my young life.

DSC 0107We first heard of the Hutterites not long after arriving in Missoula this summer. Our main source was a new friend who teaches at a Hutterite school, and the impression we formed from a not-very-detailed conversation with her was basically that Hutterites are in some vague way “like Amish and Mennonites,” live off by themselves on “colonies,” and do a lot of farming. That’s about all we had to go on when the sign appeared in front of Pattee Creek Market in late October: “Reserve Your Hutterite Turkey Today!” One day we stopped in and ordered one for pick-up on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a sixteen pounder that would be big enough to share with the international students and other temporary orphans from the university we had decided to invite over to share in the warmth and joy of our happy home.

Now, I have this writing habit or you could call it call a compulsion and sometimes the energy and desire to do something about it courses through me like fire in prairie grass and there is nothing for it but to either find something to write about or pour myself a glass of Maker’s Mark. On the Thursday before Veteran’s Day weekend we were out of whisky and it occurred to me that maybe I could travel to the Hutterite colony where our turkey was going to come from and write about the trip. It would be a quirky travel essay contrasting the Hutterites’s way of life with ours, dazzling readers along the way with great swaths of poetic description of the astonishing terrain of the state of Montana, our new home. It would be like journalism or something. Maybe I could even submit it somewhere. I called the market and learned that our turkey would come from either the New Rockport or Birch Creek colonies, both out near Choteau, two hundred miles east of Missoula as the car drives, which seemed doable. A. looked only slightly dubious when I proposed the trip.

The day before we left, I got on-line and started to read up on Hutterites. As I began my research, it felt thrillingly ironic and post-modern to be learning about these primitive farmers via the internet, and I even took some notes on this irony, thinking it would make for a good passage in my essay. But as I read further I learned that Hutterites don’t exactly lead primitive lives. I read some more, and then I crossed out all the ironic stuff and collated my notes into the kind of wise yet approachable paragraph that all the best essayists use to sprinkle book learning in among their personal impressions in order to keep their readers from noticing how self-indulgent the overall essay is:

There are in Montana small communities of a close-knit Christian sect whose members call themselves Hutterites. Like Amish and Mennonites, with whom they trace their origins back to the sixteenth century and certain disagreements with the mainstream of the Protestant Reformation, Hutterites are Anabaptists, meaning they are not baptized at birth but rather as adults, and then only after making an informed, free-will confession of faith. Also like Amish and Mennonites, Hutterites are pacifistic, reclusive, and suspicious of many aspects of the modern world. But this suspicion does not lead Hutterites to reject modern technology per se: though they disapprove of photography and television, they willingly use telephones, automobiles, and, most importantly, state-of-the-art farming equipment. And unlike Amish and Mennonites, Hutterites do not believe in personal property. They own their land and equipment in common, so that each colony operates essentially like a small farming corporation, with all of the efficiency, “rationality,” and economies of scale this permits. As a result, they are considered highly skilled agriculturists, formidably competitive with family farmers and ranchers. In fact, at a recent conference on real estate and development issues facing Montana and the west, I saw one rancher just about swallowing his tongue in an effort not to say something impolitic about his neighbors, the Hutterites.

In addition to using phones, Hutterites have answering machines. I know because I left a long embarrassing message on one the day before we left for Choteau. The message was a recap of the long embarrassing explanation I’d given to the woman of few words who answered the New Rockport Colony’s main listed phone number. I’m a writer, my wife and I just moved to Montana, I’m working on a series of essays about exploring our new home state, I wanted to write about where our Thanksgiving turkey is coming from. I’ve always found that identifying myself as a writer when no one is paying me to be one is extremely difficult, especially when I’m asking for something special or out of the ordinary as a result of this alleged “fact.” Logically, I know that this is just what I have to do if I want to write the kind of essay I had in mind here, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

She asked if what I was writing would end up in a book. “It might,” I said, trying to sound confident, i.e., “it might” end up in a book if there’s room in my book after I put all the other things into my book, but there are books involved, certainly, I’m a real writer, why wouldn’t it end up in a book? She said I would have to talk to the guy who raises the turkeys. I dialed the number she gave me and that’s when I discovered for myself that Hutterites have answering machines. I talked to the turkey guy’s answering machine for so long that a loud beep cut me off in mid-sentence to indicate that I’d run out of tape.

He never did call me back.

DSC 0100We set off from the motel around four. A., who is really very understanding of my strange urges, offers to drive so that I can make observations and talk into my tape recorder. Just to orient ourselves, we first take a quick spin through the little town where we’ll be spending the night: Choteau, MT, on the eastern Rocky Mountain Front. The main street is mostly empty, the shops are mostly dark.

In a parking lot, under the blank pitiless gaze of a rusting Tyrannosaurus Rex statue, we consult the map. Then we head east, across the tracks, and out of town.

We wind out of Choteau on state road 221 and turn north, after about two miles, on state road 220. From the Rockies to Choteau to this very turn, we’ve been driving in a region of rolling hilly grasslands with colors in about a thousand different shades of brown, gold, and yellow: wet blonde hair, beach sand at sunset, old wedding rings, and so on. Cresting a short rise on 220, we go from plains to plane, geometric that is, a glass-flat muddy-looking expanse of farm fields extending as far as the eye can see, except of course for where they run into the cloud-capped Rocky Mountains to the east west. The sun throws the car’s long shadow on the stubbly field beside the road. We pass hay bales stacked in the approximate size and shape of a semi trailer. Cows slump on the ground immobile as glaciers, horses bend graceful necks down to feed, and the occasional lonely house peeks out from its little palisade of trees.

According to the map, we are looking for the second “improved” road north of the intersection of 221 and 220, but we are hampered both because the roads are not labeled on the map and we have no idea what is meant by “improved.” We pass several fine gravel roads, labeled with numbered green street signs just like they would be downtown somewhere (17th, 18th, 19th, etc.), but I am at first convinced that the mapmakers wouldn’t have used such a thick red line to represent gravel. After a while it becomes obvious we have driven too far and we turn back, paying more careful attention to distance and the mile markers along the road. Using the side of my finger as a ruler, I estimate that the second improved road should be about five miles north of the turn we made. Between mile markers five and four, we turn west on a gravel road named 18th.

The further we drive down the gravel road, the stupider I feel about the whole thing. We have no idea if it’s even the right road, but, if it is, the fact that there was no sign back at the highway suggests that these people are not exactly eager for drop-in visitors. Three miles, four. We haven’t seen a single vehicle or person, just ranch fields full of cattle to either side of the road and then the occasional house. Like some ghostly overlay, older houses often stand crumbling somewhere off to one side of the newer ones, co-generational with the rusty pickups subsiding gradually into the earth in the front yards, the past rubbing shoulders uneasily with the present and everyone’s back turned on a future that has not looked good for small ranchers and farmers for quite some time.

DSC 0096The gravel pops and murmurs under the tires. A huge flock of birds crosses the sky in front of us in a dozen or so long, undulating strings, the color of smudged pencil lines against the white wash of clouds. So big is the sky over this immense flat plain, unrolling eastward from the Rocky Mountains at our back, that it is two or three minutes before the birds fade from view on the southern horizon. I look after them for a few seconds before switching on my tape recorder and narrating a description. There is always something to write about and there is A. beside me and this is how I hope it will always be.

Where This Site Goes From Here

In which I mention spiders and announce my plans to post a new essay every Sunday.

Back when I toyed for about five minutes with the idea of becoming a professor, I remember reading about a woman who was driving a school bus in order to be able to afford to keep working as an adjunct in English literature. She claimed to be fine with this, at least in the sense that she had never expected much better, and argued that you shouldn’t even try to become a professor these days (at least in the humanities) unless motivated by something other than the prospect of making a living, like a poet. That is, you should only do it if, the same way a poet writes poems, you would be willing to do it for free. I gave up the idea of becoming a professor but the impoverished adjunct’s way of looking at things has stuck with me in the form of a general philosophy that it’s important to pay attention to how you really want to spend your time, and besides, who doesn’t want to be “like a poet,” even if, in this example, it is just another word for banging your head against the wall.

I once took an on-line journalism course through Media Bistro in which I was mocked by the instructor for a statement he found on one of the web sites I kept before this one, something about how the mere fact of getting paid for a piece of writing is no sure mark of its quality, that what matters is how the writer feels about it, etc., etc. It was a journalism course, meaning that everyone in the class was there to polish marketable skills, so I understood where he was coming from. But I’m not about to let go of the idea that there are certain activities each of us needs to do whether anyone is paying us for them or not, and I am absolutely certain that – with writing in particular – too much attention to marketability is sure to change the shape and feel of what we’re doing, which in turn may defeat the purpose and turn the whole activity into something other than whatever it is we “need” to do.

I mean, there’s writing and then there’s writing.

For about the past month, I was working on an impressionistic and discursive essay that I figured would have important things to say about the creative urge and how writing works, perhaps only for me personally but even if so it seemed a question worth pursuing. I’ve put that essay aside for the time being in favor of remaining sane, but here’s something I found in the course of my research, from a public address by the German writer W.G. Sebald in which he describes a 1976 trip he made to Salzburg to visit his long-lost school chum, the painter Jan Peter Tripp, whose work Sebald seems in the oblique Sebaldian manner to be crediting with first inspiring him to consider becoming a writer. Sebald describes the profound effect on him of one of Tripp’s pieces in particular, an engraving showing “the mentally ill judge Daniel Paul Schreber with a spider in his skull,” and asks “what can there be more terrible than the ideas always scurrying around our minds?” The engraving and Sebald’s question call up, for me, a song my mother used to sing to me when I was a child, in which an old woman swallows first a fly and then a series of successively larger creatures, each one intended to eat the one preceding it. Specifically I think of the spider, which the old woman swallowed immediately after the fly and which “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her.” Consideration of first causes is a natural tendency at moments when the empty page looms and yet offers no suggestions concerning how to fill it. That is, why the hell do I feel the urge to do this? And what, oh what, will quiet that urge (other than whisky and anti-depressants)? At times, such questions can feel urgent indeed. “I don’t know why she swallowed the fly,” goes the song’s refrain. “Perhaps she’ll die.”

So no more early-morning scribbling in notebooks that will never see the light of day. Here’s the plan: an essay a week on this web site, and no cute categories or other prescriptions concerning what sorts of essays they’ll be. I’ve announced grand plans like this in the past, of course, but this time around I know some of the things that went wrong, mainly biting off more than I could chew and also getting too specific about what I was going to do. I used to have the idea that I could post regularly here and then work on more personal stuff on the side and somewhere during all of that also make a living, all of which I now realize from experience just won’t work. And I want to focus on the essay form, since, as E.B. White once wrote, “only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” and that looks like a glove that fits.

As for my old Media Bistro “professor,” of course I’m open to submitting things to magazines and the like, but I can’t worry about that too much to start with. When I am submitting things, I want to be able to point to a steady body of work that has been appearing here, weekly and column-like, as part of my bona fides. It doesn’t do me much good to get some random essay published somewhere after weeks of trying if the effort is distracting me from practicing: I don’t need the independent validation, and I have faster ways to earn $100. So I’m going to plug along for a while here before worrying too much about that side of things, and if you find yourself thinking that something I’ve written is good enough to publish, don’t worry, something else I write will be, too. Of course, if someone comes along and wants to hire me for an E.B. White-style weekly column (does anyone print that sort of thing anymore?), well, all bets might be off.

I’ll post the essays each Sunday, no later than noon Mountain Time (two p.m. Eastern Time). Enjoy, and thanks for reading.