A few months ago on a website an Australian called the U.S. a “mediocre country”. There are a lot of USAians who would take an exception to that. In fact, most presidents wax eloquent about how the U.S. is the only indispensable nation. Of course, that would make all other countries dispensable. And most countries would take an exception to that.
I often say when speaking to Europeans that the U.S. is an unsophisticated country and not all that smart although most USAians think they are super smart. It’s kind of like being sophomores in the history of the world. We think we know everything. But prime examples of being not so smart is that the U.S. doesn’t have some kind of universal health care system or a decent pension system. It also has stopped making practical stuff and thinks that gambling is the answer to almost everything.
One big reason for this lack of sophistication and smarts is that we don’t engage in dialogue except on rare Websites that have civil discourse or at a town meeting. A lot of USAians talk amongst people who they agree with rather than at “a town meeting” or cafe or watering hole where one must look neighbors in the face and try to make a point and to try to see their point. The French, on the other hand, have their cafe society. They do their duty as citizens by talking “politics”. (“Politics” is a discussion, not a shouting match, of the way we wish to live our lives and what we enjoy and what gives our lives meaning. It has little to do with our politicians who seem to not have a clue or simply not care what the polis is or wants.). The French leave work and go out to a cafe and argue about life and art. They engage in conversation and often use dialectics in search of clues to the mysteries of life. Or at least that’s the way it used to be. When I was in grad school at the University of Michigan, after play rehearsal we would go to a bar, order pitchers of beer and discuss how we would save the world through art. When I did Off-Off Broadway theater in New York City, we would adjourn to an Irish pub around the corner from the theater and argue about the choices our characters should make. We loved to look at all the angles and the contradictions.
But somewhere along the line those personal confrontations became fewer and fewer and didn’t seem to translate into our public lives as citizens. Historian Christopher Lasch in his book “Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” has a chapter called “The Lost Art of Argument”. In it he writes that “what Democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not information. Yes, we do need information, but information that is “generated only be debate.” So he kind of takes the “information revolution” and turns it on its head. Information in and of itself is worthless without being debated. “Information , usually seen as the pre-condition of debate is better understood as a by-product.”
And how do we gather these clues to the mysteries of life? By asking questions. We try to have what Suzuki calls “the beginner’s mind that is not a closed mind.” We take our ideas and subject them to somebody else’s arguments. If we passionately engage with an eagerness to learn, we may instead of changing somebody else’s mind find that we have changed our mind. So we must listen carefully and be willing to challenge our own beliefs and to say “Maybe what I believe may be wrong.” How exciting and far less dull than passively taking in information from some newspaper or from some pundit.
Lasch gives a shout out to the social historian Ray Oldenburg’s “The Great Good Place” and with Oldenburg mourns the passing of the local watering hole, the cafe, the hair salon, the soda fountain steps and other places between work and home where conversations used to flourish. These were places like the soda fountain steps where kids listened to their fathers debate a local policy with vigor and good-hearted disagreement. Those places where professions mingled as equals are hard to find in the suburbs, but they still exist in small towns and big cities. I was lucky to spend the last twenty years in a small town where wisdom came from caring for cows and not from a book. It came from stories and tall tales told with gusto like the one about a cowboy being out lost in the cold with only two dogs for a Three Dog Night.
Democracy dies if we hide in cul de sacs furtively taking anxiety meds as we peer out of the drawn blinds or retreat to cocktail parties where everybody is of the same class and tows the same party line. So I suggest this year that you get out and find a Cheers bar in your neighborhood and strike up a conversation with somebody who may see things differently than you do. If you don’t have one of those, then go to the nearest town that has one and adopt it as your own. And for heaven’s sake don’t get your information from a newspaper. You can get your questions there though. But also think about this. There may be no answers anyway, only clues.
Woke up Monday morning to the news that two fugitives were holed up somewhere around Big Twig. They were on the run and had abandoned their car and headed into the hills. At around Noon, word was that they might be heading South on the Boulder Road. That’s a mile from the ranch.
My husband, to be mild, is not an alarmist. I’ve never seen him “jumpy” unless somebody comes up to him from behind. He is one of the most laid back dudes I’ve ever met. So when I saw him lock the door, I was a bit surprised.
“I don’t want to be alone here when you go out to feed (the cattle bales of hay),” I mewed.
With that he went into the other room and came back with the Colt.
“You can pull back on the trigger and it will fire. But it will be hard to pull. So you can also cock the gun and then pull the trigger, ” he said as he laid the gun on my desk.
Since Education is back in the news because of the appointment of a Dutch Calvinist from my neck of the woods, I thought it might be a good time for people to examine just what is an “education”. John Taylor Gatto makes the distinction between ‘”education” and “schooling”. I have read his book “The Underground History of American Education”. He wrote an article in 2003 in Harper’s called “Against Education”. You have to subscribe to Harper’s to read the essay, but there are excerpts available on line. I’m not sure of some of his ideas about but definitely like some of his observations about how awful and mind numbing school can be.
You are made to sit in BOXES and are taught to behave so that when you graduate you can sit in another BOX all day long. And at the end of your life you end up in a hospital BOX and then a real BOX. Every four years, in preparation for the ballot BOX, for 18 months we were being herded into two awful BOXES called political parties. The whole process looked more like that cartoon of the cow staring at a meat packing plant with a sign that said “Enter Left” and “Enter Right”.
My 2¢ is that we need shorter work weeks with one parent working so they have more time to spend with their kids. I learned more from helping my Dad build a barn than I did from awful Miss Bloemendal who kicked me out in the hall every week. As an educator himself, he said, “Children should be hand made and not mass produced.” I read a lot of books. And I spent a lot of time in the woods making up stories of elves and other mythical creatures.
We hear an awful lot of yapping about “freedom”, but we imprison our children and literally imprision lots of teenagers. We imprison in prisons around 2.3 million people, more than any other nation. However, we are a big country. Proportionately though, we still imprison more than any other nation except maybe North Korea and Cuba. But according to Politofact, we don’t have accurate information on prison populations in those 2 countries, but they could be ahead of us. The point is whether we are first or third, it’s a disgrace.
Freedom should not be about the so-called free market of freedom to choose between 20 different cereals. It should more appropriately be about freedom to think differently and being able to freely express those different thoughts. But….(there is always a but), as much as we should respect individual freedom, with freedom comes responsibility to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Children should be free to have safe places to run and holler at the top of their lungs. They should also have mutual respect for others and the good manners not to scream in other peoples spaces. That goes for adults too!
Good manners and mutual respect for others opinions and cultures are great goals for an educated person. Since education is a journey, there will be many stops and starts along the way. So when you come across a different opinion, it is wise to take the PACE approach. Be Playful, Accepting, Curious, and Empathetic. Not an easy task especially the Playful part if it’s been knocked out of you due to years of being stuffed in boxes.
Notes: I got the boxes idea from the anthropologist and anarchist thinker David Graeber in his essay on “Revolutions in Reverse” and PACE from cognitive behavioral therapist Dorothy Dacar.
Yes, after 23 years here in Sweet Grass County, I can report that there is still no parallel parking in Big Timber. You can still pull your outfit in vertically with it’s nose facing the store. **Yes, “outfit” is something you drive not wear and “Gant” means thin and not a famous shirt maker. A Mexican drag line is a shovel not a bunch of Carmen Miranda impersonators kicking up their heels. And ‘casting a cow” is not getting her a good part in “City Slickers III” but tying her down on the ground.
There is still not one stoplight in a county whose square miles equal the state of Rhode Island. The anarchist in me loves that idea as much as I love roundabouts instead of 4 way stoplights. Hate being told to stay put when there is no good reason.
Daphne had been laying awake at break of dawn because Mr. Robin Redbreast had started his infernal tweeting even earlier. She remembered listening to the rattling of the garbage trucks in New York City as they made their way down Columbus Avenue early in the morning when she had lived there many years ago. She had gotten used to them and they rarely woke her up. But Mr. Harbinger of Spring, was another story. She had to resort to ear plugs to get a good night sleep. She fell asleep wondering if the robin felt any ill will toward her or whether anthropomorphizing was ever a good idea.
But anyway it was time to get up and don her bathing suit, slip on a bathrobe and sandals, grab her beach towel and head to the 6AM water aerobics class in town. As she drove up to the city park, other women were getting out of their cars, also in long bathrobes, waddling their way up to the door of the tiny pool house like a gaggle of geese.
There were already a bevy of bathing beauties in the teeny pool. And soon the class of nineteen ladies would fill it three quarters full. As always, the usual gabfest was going on as they pumped their styrofoam dumbbells and did the Water Jog. (The gabfest was what really attracted Daphne to the class as it was a great source of information on all kinds of news.) The first topic was last night’s Jeopardy category of “The Simpsons” (way too hard unless you were a Simpsons’ fan or a crossword puzzle enthusiast) to the joy of eating hot dogs.
Daphne found the hot dog discussion particularly interesting. These tough rural and ranch gals wanted little to do with sausages that they had not made themselves, normally from the elk they had shot in hunting season. When Daphne had moved to Little Twig twenty years ago, she was surprised that her rancher husband ate every kind of meat except hot dogs and veal because he “knew too much about how they are made” to be comfortable with devouring those delicacies. And these women too wanted no part of mystery meat. Oddly enough, three of us had hot dogs yesterday for lunch.
Earleen said that she hadn’t had a hot dog in two years, but suddenly found herself buying and scarfing one down yesterday. Gail said that sometimes a hot dog is the best thing on a hot day like yesterday.
The water aerobics instructor, Sharon, yelled out (and she had to yell over the din of the class’s chattering hot dog talk), “OK, let’s switch to the Bicycle!”
As Daphne started to bicycle sideways and swirling her dumbbells, she said, “I bought some organic hot dogs at the Community Coop” and ate one yesterday too.”
Gail snorted, “Organic? A Hot Dog?”
Daphne said, “OK, it just says it doesn’t have anything too obnoxious in them and the cows are grass-fed.”
Gail said, “I’ll stick to my elk. We put up 500 pounds last fall.”
“That’s a lot of sausage,” Earleen replied.
Sharon yelled out, “Lawn Chair!” and the women started laying out flat and then tucking their tummies in.
Suddenly one of the Ospreys that live in the park swooped over the gals. She was carrying a twig in her mouth.
“Look, they’re building a new nest on that telephone pole,” said Becky.
Earleen looked perplexed, “What’s wrong with the old nest on the other pole over there?”
“I heard that they lost their eggs in the hail storm last week,”Gail replied sadly.
“Yes, and then a bald eagle decided to take it for himself,” Sharon said indignantly.
“Well, that’s just mean,” Earleen retorted.
For once, the pool was quiet and all that could be heard was the swish, swish, swish of mermaids and their dumbbells.
Daphne quietly paddled in the opposite direction and wondered if her robin also “was just mean”. “No”, she thought, “he just can’t help himself. It was going to be a beautiful day in Big Sky Country and he just had to sing about it.” And yes, what a warm and uncomplicated way to start the day. Paddling around with big- hearted gals and determined ospreys.
My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway. My mother knew all the supporting players by name. Her own sisters had been MGM contract players. She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern. But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me. They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.
The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism. I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia. The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.
One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after “the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.
Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC. “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.
Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas. Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA. But there must be. There were other ideas not so very long ago. Time to dig them up and repot them. We need to “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV. I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother. No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.
 “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.
(This was originally published in 2010 and I think it’s time for re publishing it. With all the hubbub and disagreement surrounding the film “American Sniper”, we should try not to fling around the word “treason” for people who disagree with you. I heard about Christine Shupp at our watering hole, The Grand from a neighbor.)
So you are a little girl in grammar school in 1917. Your name is Christine Shupp. You related to a neighbor here in Montana that as a child you were forced every morning after the pledge of allegiance to the flag to kneel down on the floor and kiss the flag. It is because you were German. And say you are a rancher in Rosebud County, Montana and you call WWI “a millionaire’s war”. Whamo, you are dragged off by neighbors to jail. You’re in a saloon and call war time food regulations “a big joke” and you are sentenced to from 7 to 20 years. http://www.seditionproject.net/index.html
Montana played a huge part in suppressing free speech during WWI. In light of all the noise about Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and Joe Lieberman’s “upgrading” The Espionage Act of 1917, it ‘s probably a good idea to take a look backwards to the Montana Council of Defense. (Yes, President Obama and MSNBC, it’s a good idea to look backwards because leaning forwards can more often than not have you falling on your face.)
Historian K. Ross Toole wrote a chapter called “The Inquisition” in his book “Twentieth Century Montana: A State of Extremes” about a very dark time in Montana’s history. At the beginning of WW I, Woodrow Wilson formed a National Council of Defense and asked each state and each county in the state to help with war propaganda, helping in recruitment of troops, and getting people to buy Liberty Bonds. The Montana Council of Defense went whole hog into this endeavor and was especially keen on finding “slackers” and “draft dodgers”. The Governor of Montana, Sam Stewart called a special session of the legislature in part to make the Montana Council of Defense a legal body with funding by the state. The legislature also passed the Sedition Act and the Criminal Syndicalism Act, which the federal government would use as a model for the federal Sedition Act which was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917. This act was probably one of the harshest anti-speech laws ever passed in the United States. Continue reading →
TAKE THIS WITH A GRAIN OF SALT December 27, 2014 (Revised May 2020)
It was now turning twilight and Daphne was bursting with cabin fever. So, she donned her fur hat, jumped in the car, and drove through the softly falling snow. It was dark by the time she arrived at the Best of Both Worlds Bar and Grill. The neon light sputtered on and off as she climbed out of the car and into a foot of snow. She tramped up to the door and entered. This bar was where literary devices and characters hung out like the space creatures in Star Wars. She loved this place.
A strange old coot, who was all ears, was sitting in his usual spot by the wood burning stove, rocking back and forth. In a booth in the back a prairie dog was making scribbling away like usual. He was busy working on his masterpiece *“Notes from Underground”. There was a two-headed creature sipping a drink at the end of the bar. Or was that a tow-headed woman? Daphne’s glasses had fogged over. Yes, of course, it was her friend Lara who seemed to have leapt straight out of the pages of Dr. Zhivago. She was dressed all in white fur and looked like a vanilla éclair. Daphne stomped her snow coated boots together to get the large clumps off as she walked into the room. She slid on to the bar stool next to Lara.
“What’ll it be tonight, Daphne?” asked Claudia, the bar tender who had eyes in the back of her head (which never ceased to amaze Daphne.)
“Oh, before I forget, here’s some fresh eggs. I put them all in one basket, so be careful,” she warned Claudia with a grin.
Claudia turned around and smiled as she slid a bourbon in front of Daphne, “Victoria is back in town and staying at the hotel. She’s upstairs.”
Daphne wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, dear, she makes me crazy. She’s got that monkey on her back.”
“Oh, so what’s her issue?” Lara asked, ” She an Alcoholic? A Passive-aggressive? A Democrat?”
“No, no, no, she’s got a real monkey on her back. And he’s a pain in the ass. He’s got a big chip on his shoulder. ” replied Daphne.
“Ah, now I’m with you, exclaimed Lara, “The real monkey on her back has a real chip on his shoulder. How does he keep it from falling off?”
“No, the chip part is a figure of speech; an idiom. The chimp seems pissed off most of the time and that makes it down in the mouth which in turn makes it hard for Victoria to shake it off.”
“Maybe he was the black sheep of the family,” Claudia guffawed.
“Well, that’s probably the elephant in the room,” Daphne smiled as she meandered over to the front window.
[Sound of an elephant trumpeting and a monkey squealing.
A big blonde woman rushes in from the lobby with a monkey on her back.]
“I didn’t know the circus was in town, ” Daphne said as she looked out at the street.
“Are you talking about me or my monkey?” the blonde retorted.
“No, it looks like the circus has come to town. There’s an elephant in the street,” Daphne frowned. “Strange time of year for a circus. The dead of winter,” she muttered. “Of course, technically the dead of winter was December 21st so we are a week past that, but pretty close.”
Whenever Daphne started to meander it was time for somebody to jump in and switch gears.
“Speaking of winter, has everybody made their New Year’s resolutions?” Lara declared.
“No, I’m still working on what I am thankful for. I’m a couple holidays behind,” Daphne sighed.
Just then the door opened with a blast of cold air and Thor strode in. He dropped his hammer and cried out, ” Good evening and almost happy New Year to you all,” he cried. “What are we talking about?”
“Resolutions,” said Lara.
“Yes, I used to make the garden-variety kind of resolves such as quit drinking, exercise more…you know, the healthy deal,” Thor declared, “but now I don’t bother with it.”
“I was reading a blog on that very thing this morning,” Daphne said smiling. “One fellow said that he decided the best thing to do was bundle everything up into one command. His was “don’t be a dick”.
“Then that would be a dic…tum, wouldn’t it?” Claudia mused in order to get everybody back on track.
“Did you see the size of that elephant’s dic…tum?” Thor said with a grin.
“So it’s not my imagination. There is an elephant in the street,” Daphne declared.
“Yes, the circus is on their way south for the winter,” Thor replied.
“Maybe they could use my monkey and me,” Victoria reasoned.
Just then Curiosity came through the door.
“Well, I just killed a cat. I didn’t mean to but it was raining cats and dogs and one of those darn cats bounced off the hood of my pickup.”
With that Daphne decided to put her coat back on and downed her drink, It was time to call it quits before the Piper who had not been paid showed up and stole Thor’s thunder.
PLEASE CONTINUE WITH YOUR OWN LITERARY DEVICES. I’M ALL EARS.
* A bit of history: I stole this from Tim Monich who sent me a copy of a new translation of Dostoevsky’s “Notes from Underground” in 1997. The inscription read “Happy Birthday, Di! (No this is not a biological study of Prairie Dog City). Love, Tim.” There is a tourist attraction in Grey Cliff, Montana called Prairie Dog Town where Tim had visited with his family when filming “Far and Away”.
P.S. I wasted almost as much time on this little piece as I did making my cow talk using “My Talking Pet”. This is driving everybody nuts. Montana entered Covid 19-Phase 2 (like Phase 3 in other places) this week, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything much different except Daphne can sit at a high top instead of at a booth at The Grand Restaurant and Bar. She will be reporting on the evolution of seating arrangements soon. Oh and, as of Monday, everybody who comes here no longer has to self-quarantine for 14 days. But don’t tell anybody I told you.