Monthly Archives: October 2010

Proving Up

Old Homestead Cabin on Sour Dough Road

Inside the one room homestead cabin

Some people say that I’ve “proved up” by lasting over 15 years on the edge of the frontier and behind enemy lines in conservative kinda country. And yes, when I first moved into the simple ranch house with a Sears stand up shower in the basement, I was not in New York City anymore,  Toto.   No whining for me though because everywhere around me there were relics of really really hard times. And, after all,  I could get Pellegrino at Costco.

Few people took advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act to “prove up” in Montana.  At that time you had to stay on the property for  5 years for it to become yours and it was only 160 acres and there were the Indians and outlaws that made it very unappealing.  But in 1909 Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act which doubled the “free” acres to 320.  In 1912, the proving up period was reduced to 3 years plus you were allowed to be 5 months off the land giving a hint of just how hard it would be to make a go of it.  But they, the honyockers, came in droves.  The term probably comes from the derisive term for Slavs as hunyaks.  My father used that term all the time when I was growing up in Illinois.  It probably comes from his father who briefly farmed in the northwest tip of Iowa.

The ranchers had a low opinion of these farmer wannabes and called them names.  They didn’t always used to feel that way.  In the early days of the late 19th century when the rare homesteader showed up, the cattleman called him “pilgrim”.  Much kindlier.  But now they were swarming in and tearing up the sod and turning the grass “wrong side up” and the cattlemen were not too pleased.

These shacks they constructed to prove up were about 12 ft by 14 ft on average with cracks that were stuffed with rags and paper.  The winds of Montana are fierce and often as strong as a low level hurricane.  The family would huddle around a small stove and somehow make it through the raging winter.

But this is cattle country here close to the Yellowstone and butting up against the Absaroka-Beartooth Range.  There were some honyockers here, but most left during the drought (here in Montana spelled and pronounced drouth ) years of 1919 to 1925 when there were 20,000 foreclosures statewide.  So now the place is back to cattle. John Wesley Powell had told Congress back in 1878 that the right size for a ranch in high desert would be 2,560 acres. And that it should be taken care of cooperatively and  with farm residences bunched together and the range should be open and not fenced.  We didn’t listen to him and thousands of people had their lives broken, thousands of animals died,  and thousands of acres have been damaged.  And we keep making the mistakes over again in the name of individualism and profit; boom and bust.

The pictures above and below come from my friends Patty and Tom’s range land north of town.   Montana is a magnificent place, but it is hard country and can be mighty lonely.  So I’m glad to have some friends who can talk cows, fashion, and politics. And they are good keepers of the land.  Like me, Easterners Tom and Patty who have been here twice as long as I,  have proved up too.

My Friends at Work



The Great Leveler



The Great Leveler


Fixing the Leveler


The Weak Link on the Leveler


Death has been called “the great leveler”.  Recently social networking has been called “the great leveler” because it allows small businesses to compete with big business.  But for me the great leveler is when my husband asks me to “help out for a minute”.  A chill always goes down my spine.  What impossible task does he have in store for me? Will it involve getting close to  large whirling pieces of machinery that will rip off my arm or capture my scarf and Isadora Duncan me?  Will it involve large cows charging towards me in an alleyway with only a long stick to fend them off?

I spend most of my day sitting on my butt wrangling with film producers on the phone.  I know a lot about deal making and a fair amount about computers.  I have an almost PhD in theater and film, (except for that dissertation) so I can tell you about Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, and Frank Capra.   But mechanical ability?  Not so much.   A sense of what hydraulics are?  No… not really.   Even watching the women at Janet’s Hair and Nails this morning knitting kids’ hats filled me with wonder and dread.  It looked really hard and I didn’t think my short attention span could tackle such tasks.

“It won’t take long,”  he says. (He always says that).

“Do I need to change shoes?” I query because sometimes it involves cow pies and bull crap.


So we go out the back door  and into the shop yard where he has his tractor attached to a gigantic leveler.  But he also has his diesel flatbed truck backed up against the leveler with the hydraulic arms stretched out lifting a huge chain wrapped around part of the leveler.  These hydraulic arms are used to pick up round bales and then drop them on the ground for the cows to feed.  But now he’s using them to hold the back end of the leveler up.

“Hold this piece  and when I start lifting the back end, you try to put the pin in that hole.  And watch your fingers. It may jerk a little”.

Yes, friends, it’s the “watch your fingers”  part that always has my hair stand on end.  There are a whole lot of guys around here missing digits and I do not want to join the club.

Anyway, it works pretty well  with him using the hydraulics to line up the back end and I guide the narrow piece of metal into the rectangular hole.  But it doesn’t quite line up.  He then tries all kinds of things involving hammering, using a crowbar, putting blocks behind the wheels and then backing the tractor up.  But still off by a couple inches.

“What happened to it?” I said.

“Oh, this piece was weak so I cut another piece and welded it on top.  But looks like the hole I cut needs to be another half inch.  Then I can close that gap and bolt it.  So I don’t think I need you for awhile.”

Just when I was enjoying a beautiful Indian Summer day of 70 degrees and sunshine and doing something really useful and learning a bit about mechanics,  I have to go back into an office.  Pooh.  Well, at least I have all my digits for dialing.

Where the Hammering is Done - The Shop

Montana Lingo, Dos and Donts

Angus Thinking About Being Gnarly

A Few Tips if You Are Coming to Montana or just reading this Blog:

Montana  is where an “outfit” is something you drive, not wear;  where “gant” means hungry and not a well-known shirt maker;  where a #2 Mexican Drag Line is a shovel and not second-string Carmen Miranda impersonators and “Casting a Cow”  means tying her down on the ground rather than getting her a good part in “City Slickers  IV”.

1. Locals don’t use  “pissy” as in “Boy was he pissy this morning!”  Instead they use  “gnarly”, “owly”, “snaky”, “high-headed” or  “on the prod”.   I definitely get  “owly” (wide eyed)  when I talk politics.  I start pawing the ground and rearing my head just like one of my cows.  My husband then usually herds  me out of the room before I “take somebody”.

2. Cowboy Up” is a much used term for a kind of stoicism that at its best is about “making do”.  It means “get on with it” instead of standing around whining.  The hay has to be cut, the cows need to be fed, and whenever something breaks, you just fix it.  The flip side of this Cowboy way is to not go to a doctor until there is a bone sticking out of your pants leg.  The term also comes in handy for a rancher whenever his wife needs something done around the house.
Maven:   “Honey, the plumbing just broke.
Mike: “Oh, Cowboy up .   Just use the bushes.”

2a.  Other “up” words include “prove up” which means that you’ve proven that you’re OK by wrestling a calf to the ground without getting shit all over the back of your jeans.  You have to “prove up” almost every year with increasingly difficult tasks like keeping a smile on your face while trying to choke down some chewy soggy fried calves’ nuts.  (I prefer mine sauteed in a little white wine and served with a shallot saffron cream sauce. Yum.)

3.  “Nice speakin’ atcha” is used instead of “Goodbye”

4. Most people in the country have no addresses but  live on or near a creek (pronounced “crik”) which can be upper or lower or east or west.  Gets a bit confusing at  times.  “Turn left where Upper Deer Creek joins Lower Otter;  a ways past  East Porcupine on the way to the West Beaver.”   Try that after 3 Margaritas!

5.  You’ll rarely see anyone walking down the street in town. ( “Why walk when you can ride?” ).  So you’ll see someone in Big Timber,  for  example, get into the car at the Post Office,  drive a half a block down,  park and get out to go into the Ben Franklin.  Then, if they have to go to Cole Drug which is kitty corner to where they are , they will need  to jump in the car, turn right  on 2nd Street and then circle round the block in order to park in the right direction in front of the drug store.

8.While driving,  put your  index finger even with your nose and then give a slight point away from your face when a familiar “outfit” goes by or even if you don’t know who the hell it was.  This custom comes from tipping one’s hat to say “Howdy”.

9. Never tap a cowboy on his shoulder from behind, he’s libel to turn and deck you.
Be especially careful during Rodeo Week.  And never, never touch his hat.

9a. Never call a rancher’s spread, a farm.  Farmers live east and north of here.

9b.  Remember;  the bigger the hat, the smaller the…. spread.

10. Montanans are generally some of the most independent people one can meet  in the good old USA.   On the plus side, they won’t bother you much and on the minus side it can make them a bit ornery.  Discuss politics and wear wolf T-Shirts at your peril.

11.  Bunny Huggers are much reviled by locals.  They are assumed to be mostly from
California or occasionally from out East (which my husband says is anywhere east of Miles City, Montana).  They are seen as responsible for wolves in Yellowstone, high property values, lines at supermarkets, shorts on people who shouldn’t wear them, floods, droughts (pronounced drouth here)  and pestilence.

11.  Be prepared to be considered a g.d bunny hugger a.k.a. g.d. tree hugger a.k.a
g.d Californian until  you exchange a beer or two.  Then you’ll be deemed a “nice fella or gal” even if you are a g.d. bunny-tree-huggin-Californian.

A final word of advice:  Don’t try to fit in.    It just won’t work.  Enjoy the differences just like you would in  any foreign country like Italy  or Taiwan.    Just like anywhere else people are pretty much bunched into three categories;  the good, the bad and the downright ugly.  And just like in that movie by Clint, goodness   is not easy to recognize   right  off the bat or hat, so to speak (although I still believe that hairdo can be  an indicator of wholeness and well-being and I am beginning to think that the simpler the “do”, the happier the person).    So respect the local customs and enjoy a return to the kick of cholesterol.

So, that’ll do ‘er.  It won’t be a bad-type-deal at all havin’ you here.  Yoooooou Betcha!

Old Outhouse on the Ranch

Gun Toting Campaign Advice

Traps and Chaps

Would it be a good idea for a candidate for state office to hire an ex Army sharp shooter as a campaign adviser?

What is one of the first rules of public or political speaking? Know your audience. So when you are at a candidates’ forum in the most consistently Republican county in the state of Montana, is it a surprise that in response to the “wolf question”, the Republican got the biggest round of applause plus whoops and cheers for saying, “Only one thing to do; shoot ’em!!”
Now the Democratic candidate for the state senate also agreed that a rancher should have the right to kill a wolf eating his calves or sheep. And then she added something sensible about controlled hunts and how some folks even loved the idea of them.

Later at the local watering hole, I asked an ex Army guy for advice to give  the woman candidate so she can get the big applause.
“Sorry, but in this county she needed to use the word “shoot”,  not the more mewey  sounding “kill”. And if she really wanted to stun them, since she followed him, she should have gone up there all steely like and quietly said,  “Yeh, shoot him and gut shoot him three more times.”

“Hmmm,” I thought, “She might have those tea partying tough old coots and young bucks shocked out of their Justin Ropers. But in all honesty, she might have lost some of the women, conservative as they may be. Ladies might not like the Calamity Jane impression. Maybe just a simple “Shoot the suckers” might work, though.”

“Well, thanks, I’ll pass that along”, I said.    But I think maybe it’s best that I stay out of the political consultant business.

Every ranch has this picture of the wolf looking at the ranch on their walls


Et Tu, Zuckerberg?

I’m in the movie business and I don’t go to the movies much anymore.  It’s only partially because I live 70 frickin’ miles from a multiplex, but more because the movies have been really sucky of late.  Sometimes a “Michael Clayton” studio movie comes along.  You know, a movie with dialogue and some sort of social conscience like “Network”.  Yes, we fortunately have the Cohen brothers for creepy yet thrilling character portrayals and Pixar for joy.  But mostly we get a lot of hurling; large pieces of car flying at us or guys throwing up a lot.

So I’m happy to report that even though this is a movie about a bunch of narcissistic guys who invent a way to avoid social contact, “Social Network” about the origins of Facebook  had me laughing one minute and on the edge of my seat in another.  Yes, it was worth the 2 hours of driving, (although driving on Interstate 90 in Montana is sheer bliss with little traffic and kick ass scenery.  You know the whole eagles soaring deal above the Yellowstone River and against the backdrop of the buttes.) I could kick myself for not asking the young Montanans there what they thought of the excess of Harvard life.  I mean those Harvard dorms rooms are mighty swanky.  Their refrigerators are filled with Heineken.  Loads of it.   And the women’s underwear in the first party scene?   Oh boy, did I feel like I needed to go shopping.

The movie was a kind of me generation “Othello”  with the Othello character (nice Brazilian roommate Eduardo Severin played by Andrew Garfield)  becoming the supporting player and Iago (Mark Zuckerberg) becoming the dark maladjusted leading man.  The movie starts out with the Desdemona character Erica (played by Rooney Mara) being condescended to in a Boston bar by  Zuckerberg (played to dark perfection by Jesse Eisenberg) and finally dumping his sorry ass, thus ending that Othello comparison.  (The movie theater I was in had a sound problem and the first couple minutes we couldn’t hear the dialogue which made us a bit rebellious. So they started the whole movie over and I’m glad they did because the movie starts off with such a bang that to have missed it would have been a sin.)

Every performance is dead on.  Eisenberg provides the strange hypnotic but sad center.  While Garfield provides its only beating heart.  The Winklevoss twins played by Armie Hammer with body double Josh Pence are the epitome of privilege who are impossibly handsome, smart and , oh yes, are on the Olympic crew team.  You start off hating them, but end up loving every minute they are on the screen. And just when you thought you were having all the fun you could stand, in walks Lucifer minion Sean Parker, played with astonishing dash and complexity by Justin Timberlake.  A seducer of the first order, he lures Zuckerberg away from this best friend Eduardo into the Silicon Valley version of decadent paradise.

The direction of David Fincher couldn’t be better making even the scenes in the law office fraught with danger.  The Aaron Sorkin script is fast, almost dizzying, but still luscious and spare at the same time.  The first scenes are actually flashbacks.  We then are shown the present which is a law office where the depositions are being taken of the people suing Zuckerberg over whose idea Facebook was.  Who would have thought you could get that much drama in deposing people?  And who is telling the truth? I’m probably not the first person to remark that Sorkin used the “Rashomon” structure to brilliant effect.  Who is telling the whole truth?

The women’s roles are not so much.  This is a movie about young masters of the universe in the making and their whirling neon drug and alcohol filled world of whoopee. If we let them, they will continue to infect our innate sense of community with a crapolistic sociopathy that will be the end of us.    But somehow, thank goodness I saw another possibility.   I ended up hoping that  Erica was happily talking philosophy with her good friends at a Boston University hangout. She was not  sitting with a bunch of assholes basking in their perceived glory or alone collecting friends on her Facebook page. Who will be the winners in this battle for a real social network?  Tune in.

Smoke and Mirrors

Hot Potatoes

Our little town’s potato factory burned down, so I went to see “Social Network”.  I didn’t even know our town of 1500 people had a potato factory.  And don’t potatoes grow in the ground?

Our electricity went out around 9am, so my husband figured it must be because there was smoke billowing up over the hill.  He wished me luck as he threw his saddle into our neighbor RM’s truck as he had to go up country to Musselshell to help RM move his cows.  I wouldn’t be able to talk to him until he got back as the reception up there is nil.

Well, it’s the day that our recycling area is open at the dump, I mean transfer station, so I decided to bring in my bottles, papers, and plastic and see where the fire was.

As I approached the dump/recycling place, the fire was across a large field from it. This fire was huge and the smoke was an ugly black and gray; a  bulbous mass of something I didn’t want to know about.

“If the wind shifts and comes this way, I’m closing down,” said the dump guy.

My Towns Recycling Place and the Mountains

I decided to high tail out of there and go home.  I stopped in at the vet clinic which borders our ranch to see if they had any news of how long the electricity would be out.  I pulled in and they had their door open and I surmised it was for light.  Yes, indeedy, their power was out too.  The electric company said that “it would be awhile” because of the fire.

“What’s a while, do you think?” I queried.

“Oh, I bet it’s a while,” the vet said, drawing out the word “while”.

So the idea of sitting in a 60 degree house with no power was stupid.  And it was going to rain.  So I checked Fandango and found out that I could make a 1:40pm showing of “Social Network” in Bozeman.

Off I went on a drizzly (strange for Montana this time ,of year by the way) and drove to the nearest multiplex an hour away.  The place was packed and worried I wouldn’t get a seat.  Turned out that the Jackass movie had the long lines and although fairly full, I got a good seat for “Social Network”.

But there was no sound coming out of the previews up on the screen… Uh oh.

To Be Continued…

Why Maven?


Old Bum Lamb Shed and a New Bob Cat


Well Montana Maven is more alliterative than Montana Badger.  According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, it takes three types of people to produce a trend; mavens, connectors and salesmen. .  Mavens tend to badger people about new fun things like IPads, books like “The Shock Doctrine” and Tom Geoghegan’s “Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?”, best restaurants in Florence, Italy or in Bozeman, Montana.   Mavens  insist you  try the Bobby Flay grilled potato with tarragon salad.  And they can badger you about politics.

This week’s badgering includes telling everybody I can about a brilliant history of Montana which is still relevant today even though it was published in 1943.  It is Joseph Kinsey Howard’s “Montana : High, Wide, and Handsome”.  Filled wit figures like “Rattlesnake Jake” and “Long Haired Owens”and heart wrenching scenes of poor homesteaders “honyockers” huddled by a stove in a tar paper cabin in 30 below weather and cattle dying of thirst or buried in the snow, it is not just another colorful portrait of Western cowboys and plucky immigrants.  It calls out the corporate exploiters from the Copper Kings to the banksters to the railroad owners to the power companies. Howard is angry at the loss of Montana’s youth in WW I. The state’s over sacrifice was due in large party to an accounting error.  He’s hopping mad about stupid land policies and thievery by the Federal Reserve. Even the farm equipment manufacturers get him in a lather.

Since he is writing about desperate times, it is good to hear tales of local officials  who step up and defend the little guy. It’s good to hear of innovative county agents who try to bring sustainable farming techniques to this high desert state. It’s good to hear about the people of Montana going against the mighty Anaconda Copper Mining Company  and winning a ballot initiative that finally forced the company to pay its fair share of taxes.  It is good to hear about how the New Deal helped starving farmers with 10 mouths to feed and gave them a dignified place to live and a chance to prosper. Good policies that we should be using now.

Montana is a strange and unpredictable place. It seems forever filled with sun and big skies.  But still so much darkness underneath my feet as I walk on the ranch that the yin and yang is breathtaking.  Ranches are made up of many failed homesteads.  You come across a foundation with just a set of stairs or the seat and steering wheel of an old jalopy. Dashed dreams and dead deer.  But then again, this is “next year” kinda country.


Where Old Stuff Goes


Welcome to the new Montana Maven website.

Seems that my website “disappeared.” Not sure if I’ll try to find it or use its demise as a way to start anew, be born again, rise from the ashes, reboot and retoot.

For six years I tried like heck to “be part of the solution” by becoming active in the Democratic Party. I worked on two presidential campaigns, one US.Senate campaign, and one local state representative campaign. I became a County Chair, I was a delegate to the 2004 convention, I attended rallies, and state conventions and state dinners. I had dinner with the governor.
I had the only left talk radio show in Montana. Every Saturday I drove an hour up and an hour back to do three hours of doing battle with a bunch of libertarians. The upside was that I got to interview great minds like Francis Moore Lappe, Dean Baker, Matt Taibbi, Charlie Derber, Stephen Kinzer, Glen Ford, Rick Perlstein, Melvin Goodman,
and many many more.
A year ago they gave us the boot, the heave-ho, the axe, the what-for, the pink slip. Replaced us with some Tea Party “reformers”.
So I’m done with the Democrats. I’m off the radio. I still work hard for a living while my husband works at wrastling cows and baling hay. But I occasionally have a thing or two to say. So that’s what this blog is for.


A good March day