Keystone Jobs

Promoters of the Keystone pipeline have done a good job making the project synonymous with jobs. In that way, to oppose it would be to oppose jobs. However, in Montana, the claim was suspect back in 2012 at the nadir of the great recession, and remains so today. The reason is that the pipeline is traveling through a portion of the state that already has very low unemployment, on account of there being very few people who live there. Thus, people would have to move to the area to achieve the employment provided by the project. And if we're talking about jobs in far eastern Montana available to young men willing to move, well...those already exist in droves.

Here's a map I put together in 2012. The numbers remaining basically the same.


Keystone and "The Road Home"

I just finished Jim Harrison's "The Road Home," which in many ways is a love letter to Nebraska--specifically the Sand Hills. Some of my forefathers settled in Nebraska from Sweden, and their farm stayed in the family till my grandmother sold it some time in the 1990s. The story always went that my great-grandfather wanted nothing more to get off the farm, but was obliged to stay, and my grandfather wanted nothing more to get off the farm and succeeded. I could always immediately understand that impulse, and nothing nice about Nebraska ever made it into family conversation. But Harrison makes a strong case for the state, just as Willa Cather did a century before. With the Keystone Pipeline now coming through and grazing the edge of the Sandhills, perhaps Harrison's book (and "Dalva," which proceeds it) should be essential reading. Harrison himself doesn't sound

Unrelated, a poem:

The pine, shrouded in fog, alone in a quarter horse pasture

emitted a frantic transmission of binary tones

The kind old modems used to make

When they were connecting to the world over our long-distant phone line

So rapid it was static to the human ear.

Is this what Crow hears

When listening to 100 humans jabber on a street?

2014 in Books

Here, in no particular order, are the books I read in 2014, with some notation on whether reading it was a good idea.

Angles of Repose, Wallace Stegner: The story of three generations in the West, in Boise and Northern California. The protagonist reminded me of my grandmother Peggy, which made it sometimes slow reading, but Stegner's vivid writing was always engrossing.

All The Little Living Things, Stegner: The better of the two Stegner books I read, an unblinking meditation on death, and what we hope for in life. The closest thing the book has to an antagonist (other than the looming developers who want to subdivide the valley) is a hippy I was later told was based on Ken Kesey, whom Stegner spared with when Kesey was a writing student at Stanford.

Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes: This was THE book a few years ago. I enjoyed previous work by Barnes, but for the life of me couldn't understand what the rage was about with this work. 

Welcome to Hard Times, E.L. Doctorow: A young, sturdy writer doing some "genre slumming" with Western tropes. Enjoyable enough.

Bottom of the 33rd, Dan Barry: I think every summer I'm going to read a baseball book. This one tells the amazing story of the Pawtucket Red Socks and the Rochester Red Birds playing a 33 inning game back in 1982. But really it's about the heartbreak of AAA baseball, and the death of the rust belt.

The Pale King, David Foster Wallace: His unfinished piece. Magnificent, and devastating for anyone hoping to imitate his craft, for the inimitability of it. 

Why Are We in Vietnam?, Norman Mailer: Despite the name, most of this book takes place in the Brooks Range of Alaska. It's my understanding that Mailer only spent a few days in the state before writing this book, making his vivid depiction of the wilderness all the more stunning.

Executioner's Song, Mailer: 1,000 pages about Gary Gilmore, the first man executed in the United States for decades. Mailer puts you so fully into Gilmore's world that his language, his hopes, his fears, become yours.

An American Dream, Mailer: The third and last Mailer book I read this year, it was a noir, complete with a blonde bombshell and murder.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann: Meh. 

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: The dean of the strangely ascendent Spokane literary scene, Walter weaves a touching story about men who never gave up on love.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, Maria Semple: Simply the best critique of modern Seattle life in existence. 

Flight, Sherman Alexie: Reading Alexie makes me realize that writing in a strong Native American voice is like doing a Canadian accent: it's difficult to do for how similar it is. Only someone who deeply understands where the vital differences exist between White and Native cultures can do what Alexie does, which is create fully realized American Indian worlds. He does cartwheels with his gift in this book, which is nominally Young Adult.

The Hobbit, the rings, Tokien: Goes without saying. Perfection.

Ponteroy's Complaint, Phillip Roth: My attempt to understand what the fuss about Roth is, I'm still a bit in the dark.

Push, Sapphire: Tara and I do a thing in used book stores where we pick out something for the other to read that we're sure they'll hate. Tara picked this one for me, and I actually was floored by how good it was. The insight on illiteracy was especially crafty, from a writer's perspective. 

Moving On, Larry McMurty: 800 pages about Patsy Carpenter, a young woman who knows she's pretty and knows she's smart and uses those attributes in the most self-serving ways thinkable. And you're sort of supposed to root for her. The best think I got out of this book was this line in the New York Times review of it:

Remember Mark Twain’s preface to “The American Claimant”? Claiming he was only so-so at weather-writing and that weather slowed down the narrative, Twin decided to leave it out; readers wanting weather were advised to turn to his appendix, an anthology of great weather writing from Genesis to Charles Craddock, whenever the urge afflicted them. Someone may someday treat sex in the same way.

 No such luck, but it's a great thought.







The banality of plight, part II

In this week's Seattle Weekly, Rick Anderson has a brilliant piece about Misty Upham, a Blackfeet actress who died at the age of 32. She was found at the bottom of a steep ravine on the banks of the White River near Auburn. I won't try to sum up the tragic circumstances in a sentence. It all must be read in context, which Rick provides in droves. But a line toward the beginning jumped out at me, as it seemed to underline a point made in my previous post: That through a well meaning attempt to acknowledge and validate Native American grievances, white artists reduce an entire people as demential representations of oppression at the expense of a far more complicated, rich and affirming truth. 

From Anderson:

Five-foot-six, with a wide oval face, Misty could be a strikingly pretty damsel or a gritty single mom, adapting physically to her role. (For her part as Lila in Frozen River, she purposely gained 40 pounds and cut off her waist-length hair above the shoulders). The work brought in good money at times, but she struggled financially and sometimes lived in her car in Hollywood. She hoped for a breakout role, but was typecast as a Native American surrounded by trouble, pain, and failure. “I would love to do a film like Sense and Sensibility,” she told an interviewer, “but until society changes, the only roles I’d get to play in movies like that would be either as a maid or a prisoner, which totally sucks.”

You Can Take the Cowboy Out of the Lonesome Plains...

When I learned that Tacoma was to become the new home to hundreds of Western art pieces, via a new wing constructed at the Tacoma Art Museum, I thought about White Pass. Just south of Mount Rainier, the pass was the main trading route between tribes west of the Cascades like the Nisqually and those east of the mountains like the Yakima. The pass represented the two groups coming together, but also the separation that the mountains demanded. The cultural distinction between the two regions were exemplified by their modes of transportation. The tribes west of the mountains used canoes. The tribes east used horses.

The reason the exhibit at TAM brought this to mind was that the new collection was quite clearly trying to capture the imagery of the Western United States east of the Cascades (and mostly east of the Continental Divide ... the family who bought the art did so while living in Wyoming), while the museum itself is built hard against the bay where the Puyallup River feeds into the Puget Sound. I sensed there would be some regional incongruity with the exhibit, something like a rodeo being held in downtown Seattle. Prior to the TAM expansion, the museum was a wonderful experience on account of the hyper-regionalism curators developed, immersing visitors in a world of rivers made of feathers and totem poles suggestive of Christ--this would seem to exacerbate the feeling that a bunch of cowboy art was out of context there. 

I visited the exhibit the first weekend I could, and loved it. It has all the right classic names to bring in crowds--Russell, Remington, O'Keeffe--balanced by a satisfying number of contemporary pieces that gives hint at how the American West continues to be interpreted. There were few depictions of Pacific NW tribes, but not many. This was Wyoming art collected in Wyoming. Which I thought actually was fine, until I read the reviews.

Both the Seattle Weekly and The Stranger were deeply uncomfortable with the exhibit, so sure were the writers that it was forwarding a myth about the American West that covers up the true genocidal thrust of European expansion. The curators themselves rightfully acknowledge that some of the art in the museum was produced by men in New York and Europe who created based on what they saw at Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, and give contemporary Native academics a platform to refute ideas forwarded by the pieces in the form of small placards placed right beside those stating the name of the piece and the artist. Yet, ultimately, the curators felt the art was worth exhibiting; the critics weren't so sure. 

The Weekly was especially harsh, leaning heavily on the collectors' German roots to exhibit the Eurocentricity of the work displayed. "The whole collection is promulgated by the same German Romantic cult of the American West," Brian Miller writes. The exhibit demands rebuttal, he says, perhaps a photo exhibit showing the state of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The Stranger is a bit more exploring in its critiques, but bristles that the collection amounts to many "generic images of Plains-style Indians," the implication being that the artists weren't honestly trying to capture Native culture, but simply trying to confirm the (Eastern) public's already held notions about what cowboys and Indians look like. Which, intentionally or not, gets to the problem of taking this art out of regional context. Pacific NW viewers will be, by and large, unfamiliar with the culture of the American plains, and thus feel compelled to see it the context of cheap genre art...oil-on-canvas version of John Wayne movies. 

Which it's not. If anything, it's an oil-on-canvas version of Frank Byrd Linderman's interviews with various Plains Indian elders. These artists recognized that something was being destroyed and they tried to capture it before it was lost. They did celebrate cowboys, but contrary to popular belief, cowboys and Indians are not mutually exclusive. They saw poverty overtaking Indian peoples, but chose to focus on what made them proud rather than what was laying them low.

Perhaps they recognized that poverty, epidemic and scourge though it is, is often banal. A few years ago I recall stopping into an office building in Seattle that had a small art gallery in the foyer. At that time, it was showing an exhibition of a Seattle photographer who went to Pine Ridge and shot the desperate poverty that's there. That collection offended me. That someone would come back from a place and show only the most decrepit houses and addled humans, out of some possibly sinister but likely just misguided desire to churn up cheap and shallow emotions of white guilt. Indian poverty is always there for white artists to capture. And they do so, again and again, and nothing changes on the reservations. 

Perhaps, at The Stranger suggests, the problem is whites depicting Native Americans, period. That when Indians become the subject they, by definition, become subjugated.That's probably true. But it's also reductive, and would demand an ethic that has us all ignore a rich, proud, tragic, dramatic and important history. That would be tragic.

Attack of the narrative story telling

Sometimes, as a writer, you feel a narrative must be constructed to tell your story. When you need to build a narrative, you need to describe the scene. When you need to describe the scene, you need to grab some snippets of detail that you hope will paint a picture. Only, sometimes you don't actually need to build a narrative to tell your story, and when that's the case, all the detail you include in order build it comes off terribly unnecessary. I've been guilty of this; I once struggled mightily to describe the board room in which an oil and gas auction was occurring. Why did I think the reader gave a wit? I don't think the reader crossed my mind; I just wanted words and reached for them there. I bring it up on account of what seems like a growing use of scene setting in journalism that's often of questionable utility. A paper I won't name recently interviewed the same person for two different stories, for the same edition. In both stories, the reporters made sure to mention which coffee shop this source met them in. It was good advertising for the coffee shops, and showed that this person was willing to get coffee and various places around town to talk to reporters, but did little else to help the reader understand the issues at hand. Then today, in the Ranger out of Tacoma, a court reporter turned the story of a man getting sentenced for threatening another man into a sweeping epic, describing everything about the court room. Only there wasn't much to say about the court room. It was "nondescript," "with only a clock on the wall behind the judge." It was painted a "light yellow." I'll submit that people reading the story don't care about the color of the courtroom. They want to know what happened, and why. Again, I'm just as guilty of this sin as the next guy with a notepad. But it seems to be a growing menace, with red eyes, teeth that look like shards of glass, and a snarl the sound of................



Can parents not do the homework anymore?

The New York Times Magazine this summer had a great piece on the way in which the effort to overhaul our nation's approach to math education may be faltering on account of a very basic mistake: we aren't training our teachers to teach "the new math."

The article made a lot of sense, but a point it didn't bring up, and which I hadn't considered, was brought up in conversation by a guy behind me at the grocery store. He was complaining to the person he was with that he can't help his son out with math anymore because he doesn't understand how his son arrives at his answers. Once he mentioned it, I recalled that many of the Republican attacks on the Common Core curriculum amount to snarky notes fathers have written on their kids' math homework, saying something along the lines of "I'm a math major and I don't get this." I thought the arguments were pretty lame, but hearing the guy sound truly troubled by the fact that his son was disregarding everything he'd taught him in favor of the new math had me re-thinking my stance.

Then, as if it sensed I was trailing from the straight and true path of liberalism, the Times today published a round-robin debate on whether parents should help their kids with homework in the first place. Most of the experts seem to think not.

So there you go. I should have turned around chided the guy for even trying.


a smart take on climate change

A column that appeared in the Helena IR today (not exclusively, but that's where I saw it) makes some of the best points regarding environmentalists wooing conservatives I've ever read. I recommend the whole thing, but here are some points the author, Brendon Steele, made that everyone concerned with finding a broadly supported solution to climate change should consider:

-- Mild entreaties to conservatives that rely on a Teddy Roosevelt-type conservation message to discuss climate change doesn't work. I can't think of how many times I've read columns that try to equate hunting heritage to a massive overhaul to the carbon economy. They don't add up in the conservatives mind because...

-- It's the solutions, not the problem. As is so often the case, if a problem demands an undesirable solution, then the common course of action is to deny the problem. As long as climate change solutions are state-based (and I think they must be), then conservatives are going to deny it. 

-- This isn't totally a big-oil conspiracy. While the oil companies have certainly aided and abetted climate deniers, the reluctance to subject the American energy system to a new government regime is entirely predictable given our national narrative. 

Liberals are understandably so fed up with conservatives that they don't really even bother debating them about it, instead turning to friendly news outlets that give them another shot of alarmism that proves to them they were right even if they weren't listened to. But Steele seems to be onto an approach, that if heeded, could help the left bring the right back into the conversation. 


P.S. A kind of dumb take on climate change: George Oshenski, who is a great dude and usually a good writer, seems to make some pretty big jumps in logic tying his bad hunting weekend to climate change in this column. Again, liberals would love for enough evidence of a problem to make conservatives accepting of any solution. But that's not going to be the case.

a few thoughts on the election

I had the privilege last week of helping my brother in the final days of his successful campaign for House District 96 in Missoula. He won the race by 120 votes, and while the Democratic Party considered the district slightly blue, given the results of most of the elections Tuesday night, it's notable he won. The performance of the Democratic state senate candidate in Andrew's district bears that out. Had her district only covered the part of Missoula county covered by Andrew's district, she would have handedly lost the seat. However, thanks to a good chunk of deep blue neighborhoods in her district that are not in Andrew's (each Senate district encompasses two House districts), she was able to win. Put another way, Andrew convinced a lot of voters who were disposed to voting against Democrats--and indeed did vote against the D senate candidate right above his name -- to vote for him anyway. How? He worked his ass off. While not nearly as sprawling as some Montana legislative districts, it takes about 30 minutes on I-90 to get from one end of it to the other, and Andrew canvassed it constantly from April till election night. Last week, I spent most of my time in the Frenchtown area, which is rural and reeling from a paper pulp mill plant closure five years ago. The culture there is fundamentally different from that in Missoula, which I felt deeply as I snaked my Prius down long dirt drives to homes surrounded by ranchland. While there are plenty of reasons this shouldn't be so, the fact of the matter is the Dems have trouble with this class of voter. I hazard a serious generalization when I say they have less formal education and are more religious. There is a feeling that the Democrats put up barriers to people like them getting good jobs. (I think they have a point to an extent, though it was rich Republicans who shut down the Frenchtown Mill despite it being profitable.) What Andrew proved, though, is that by going out and looking these people in the eye and hearing what they have to say, a politician can cut through all the talking points they are fed on cable TV and AM radio. I don't think Andrew would object to me saying that now that he's elected, he'll be on probation with these rural voters till he starts voting on policy. How he'll do in their view won't be known for a while, but the fact that he put so much work into meeting every voter gives me hope that they'll feel they've been done right by.

A few more thoughts on election night 2014:

--This was Andrew's observations first, but it should be repeated: The Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Amanda Curtis, received an F from the NRA this year. The D candidate for U.S. House, John Lewis, got an A. Both only got about 40 percent of the vote. Which raises a major question about how much good it does Democrats who bend over to appease groups that almost by definition repel their base. There's plenty of post-mortem talk about whether in hopes of capturing the middle the Democrats abandoned their base this year, and paid dearly for it. I think the Curtis/Lewis races show that at very least the base is as valuable as the center, in terms of votes. And they'll be with you longer if you capture their hearts, meaning Curtis' political future in the state is far brighter than Lewis'.

-- In their ecstasy, the Republicans need to remember that a majority of this nation voted Obama into office, twice, well aware of his stance immigration. For every argument that Obama pursuing his immigration agenda would equate to ignoring Tuesday's voters, I would submit that Obama not pursuing his agenda by whatever means he can in his capacity as the federal executive would be ignoring the voters who put him there in 2012. Really, the Republicans are trying to use a wild misreading of a low-turnout midterm election to essentially dictate the Oval Office agenda. (I made this post originally to On Point's website. It got 4 up-votes so definitely should be repeated here!).

myths, true and false

Most places you go around Fairbanks, tourist places that is, have signs written in both English and Japanese. The Japanese come to the area in droves to see the Northern Lights, which has bred a belief around town that in Japan, it is considered good luck to conceive a child under the Aurora Borealis. Not true, a Japanese tour guide told me. He's not sure where the myth came from, but based on the advanced age of most of the Japanese tourists I saw, I was inclined to take him at his word. Conversely, and in the same vein, it is true that the indigenous Athabascan people in Interior Alaska believed bears were bad luck for conception. So, women of child bearing age would not look at or talk about bears, and would hide behind smoke houses if one approached a camp. It all goes to show how humans are obsessed with progeny, if not their own then other people's.