These are stories from letters written in 1995 between Diane on a Montana cattle ranch and Joanna in a small village outside of Spoleto, Italy in the province of Umbria. Diane and Joanna had been movie and television talent agents representing such actors as Julianne Moore, Emma Thompson, Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci and the comedian Lewis Black. Both jumped ship, skedaddled, flew the coop and escaped to the country. Joanna may have gone farther miles wise, but psychically Diane was on another planet. Joanna could get to Rome in an hour and a half by train. Diane could maybe get to a Costco in that time and only when the roads were good.
One of Gary Larson’s cartoons that has lingered with me over the years is the one where a small wooden shed sits in the middle of a construction site with a big mound of dirt. Above the shed is the sign “Fred’s Fill Dirt and Croissants”. I love it because it appeals to my love of contrasts and supposed contradictions. It is also the story of my life. Granddaughter of rich people from Philadelphia who made their fortune in bobby pins and hair nets and the granddaughter of a failed farmer who ended up on the Ford assembly line. Trained to teach lofty subjects to college kids, but happier doing pratfalls in French farces in Off Off Broadway theaters. Now living on a cattle ranch going to boat floats and book readings in one week.
“BOAT FLOOOAT! BOAT FLOOOOAT!”, the guys on shore yelled out to a river raft filled with pirate hatted young men. Continue reading →
In rural America, it can get really lonely especially for women. (Men have to “go to town” a lot for “supplies”.) So for some quick socializing lest you start talking to your dog a little too much and too loudly, you go to a hostess party when invited. What I discovered out here in Montana was that working and ranch women tended towards product selling parties such as Scentsy Candles, Norwest cleaning supplies, or the old standby, Tupperware just to have an excuse to get out of the house. The more, shall we say, upscale and college-educated women tended to host luncheons for worthy causes. Not saying it’s strictly a money thing, but it mostly holds true that working women can’t get away during the work week to go to a Planned Parenthood luncheon and my college educated middle class crowd are not going to sit around discussing how to make a Scentsy bar of soap last longer. They can afford expensive soaps and so they spend their free time raising money. That’s just reality and not snobbery. And it turns out that the more “high class” luncheons come with a price. Continue reading →
Newt Gingrich suggested that perhaps a good idea for poor highschoolers would be to work as the janitors in their high school in their off hours which would “be a way to instill a work ethic while also saving money”. A lot of liberals jumped on him for this screaming, “That’s an awful idea. That is child labor and it’s racist to boot.”
Well, it sounds racist. But most of all it sounds stupid and way out of touch with the lives of regular Americans. So it’s not only racist, but it’s elitist.
What, pray tell, are the janitors going to do when there job is taken over by teenagers? Does Newt propose having the janitors teach? Maybe they will take on administrative duties? (Actually not bad ideas). Did Newt think for a moment that real people are janitors. And janitors earn their wages. They are good at their jobs and probably proud of their work. “Custodial engineers” are responsible for “making minor repairs to the steam plant, heating equipment, electrical equipment, plumbing…” according to PolitiFact.com. (Do you want to have students working on boilers?)
Hey, people, janitors fix things not blather on about nonsensical ideas about what could be done to improve the lives of poor children.
Also, there is nothing wrong with kids doing chores. In the one room school my husband went to they had a hot lunch and then they all did the dishes. I used to clean the teachers’ coffee cups after their coffee break. I was soooo relieved to be out of class for a half an hour. It was fun.
My father ran a school for the handicapped. He was an early pioneer in special education. Everybody had chores including the physically handicapped. Deaf dormitory students Richard and Cheryl helped my grandmother cook the evening meal and then do the dishes, just like a family would do. David who had little use of his arms or legs could fold the napkins with his chin. Older children helped the younger ones to bed.
On the ranch or farm, children fed the chickens, the pigs, and the bum lambs. They helped with haying. These are all called “chores”. The difference between chores and child labor is how long the chores last. If you send a kid down a mine shaft and they labor for 10 hours, that’s abuse. If a kid has to do an hour of mowing or washing the car, that’s chores.
And taking a job away from a capable hard working adult is just stupid and not the way to help poor children have a better education and a better life.
Note to politicians: I got this insight from a manicurist who was appalled that this politician would suggest taking a good paying job away from an adult and give it to a 14 year old because all it was was cleaning toilets. “No clue,” she said.
I’m reading Tom McNamee’s succulent, savory and savvy book on Alice Waters. It’s called “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.” Berkeley, California in the 1970s is certainly trippy.
Throughout the book, the narrative will be interrupted by Alice Waters giving a detailed description of how to cook a dish. After reading about how to make the perfect omelet, I had to try it myself. (I have to work on flipping it over in the air). Having hard boiled eggs around also turned out to be a simple way to start the day. Her search for the perfect lettuce and the perfect peach had me combing my local farmers’ market pretending to be a forager from Chez Panisse. I brought the peach to my nose and inhaled. I cradled the beautiful head of lettuce and pictured it on my table. I sniffed and caressed.
For many people, these are hard times. So talking about good food may seem callous and a bit hippy dippy. But that’s not why I’m recommending this book. What we eat is something we have some control over. We can eat simply and healthy. And people on food stamps can buy produce from farmers’ markets instead of filling up on processed cheese. I was at a farmers’ market in Livingston, Montana. The couple ahead of me were buying some nice potatoes, lettuce, and radishes. They used food stamps.
Radishes on Lace
Something else that I do to ward off the evil spirits of doom and gloom is to get out an old lace tablecloth and serve my radishes on a nice china plate. A little elegance on the frontier is what ranch wives often tried to do in the face of dust and dirt. And I continue the tradition.
When I moved here 18 years ago from NYC and LA, there were few farmers’ markets. Oddly, I had been spoiled by living in those big cities. They had fabulous farmers’ markets. New Jersey is not called the Garden State for nothing. But Montana imported 80% of its food. Also I discovered that people here did have vegetable gardens but they traded with their friends but didn’t sell the fresh produce. Thanks to local women, we got our own farmers’ market. And the ones in the larger towns have grown and become increasingly sophisticated in their consciousness of flavor and organic ways of growing things. It took me years, but I finally convinced my rancher husband to stop grain feeding his steers and go grass fed.
I thank you Alice Waters for your pioneering spirit and pushing farm to restaurant and schoolyard gardens. Yes, you can be a pioneer in Berkeley and you can lead a revolution with a spatula and a iron skillet.
Literally, warm weather in the middle of winter on a cattle ranch stinks to high heaven. This time of year the cows are not roaming the range, but are close to home home on the range to make it easier for Mike to feed them round bales of hay. So they concentrate near the ranch house when they know it’s time to feed and to drink from the water tanks since the irrigation ditches are dry for the winter. So there tends to be a lot of concentrated shit. Also the bulls are wintered in their own pen with their own piles of poop. Below freezing weather keeps the poop from being too pungent. Just a whiff of crap.
But Monday an unusually warm Chinook came and the temperatures rose from near zero up to 30º, then 40º and by Thursday it was almost 50º. Needless to say, the slight aroma of cow pies became almost overpowering and it wasn’t helped by our border collie gleefully running through the corrals and happily bursting through the dog door and into the house. Not much of her white spots on her fur were white. She was bull shit green.
Nothing like it to start the day with your cup of green tea with a slight hint of orange blossom.
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.
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.