Monday, March 29, 2010

Economic Development

I missed the Economic Development Conference in havre last week, but I was there in spirit.
Economic Development

I’ve been thinking about how all along the Hi-line small towns are shrinking and how we need to give serious thought to economic development. Actually, I was giving serious thought to my next vacation when this problem and its perfect solution popped into my brain. What started this thought process was my fingernails.

After this long and bitterly cold winter, my fingernails are fragile, almost brittle. Contemplating my nails led me to memories of my last vacation in Mazatlan , along the west coast of Mexico , with my friend Kathy. Time-share hawkers are a plague in this lovely city. Kathy and I have resisted a boatload of these bamboozlers. We have simple rules; don’t make eye contact, keep moving, say no, gracias. Say it a lot.

Maybe we were mushy-headed that day. Or perhaps it was Fate, planting a germ of brilliance in my mind. Or perhaps we felt sorry for the desperate young man setting up the pitch. For incentive we were offered free breakfast, a thousand pesos and a bottle of tequila. Early the next morning, the pulminia (think jeepy-kind of open vehicle made by Volkswagon and used in WWII, now used to shuttle tourists) driver picked us up outside our hotel and drove us a resort. Toothpick met us and immediately swept us along on a tour of exclusive, lease-to-own, I-don’t-remember-the-details, condos.

Toothpick was a long, tall drink of water, a former Texan, retired to Mazatlan . We pegged him for a used-car salesman and an ex-smoker. When he met us, he had a toothpick in his mouth. He talked around the toothpick. He drank coffee around the toothpick. He had a pocket full of toothpicks, and when he’d shredded one, he discarded it and began chewing on another, like a chain-smoker lighting his next cigarette with his last.

The first thing Toothpick said to us, as he ticked off the reasons he lived in Mazatlan, was how healthful the ocean air was for his skin, his hair, and yes, even his fingernails, holding out veined hands for us to admire his manicure. During the tour, the breakfast, and the sales spiel, Toothpick repeated the healthy benefits of ocean air for hair, skin, and, yes, especially fingernails. We snickered but felt the “two hours, guaranteed,” sales talk was worth the four hours in actual time, just to put Toothpick and his fingernails on our list of people we will never forget. But I digress.

All of which circles me back to my idea for economic development. Let’s sell Time-Shares on the Hi-line. Harlem could be the pilot project. From there we would branch out—Dodson, Saco, Hinsdale , Kremlin, Gildford, Rudyard. The world is our Rocky Mountain Oyster, so to speak.

Oh, we’d have to start out small, of course. In Mazatlan, when a development group is new, or is under-funded, or otherwise is unable to build a thirty-story high-rise resort surrounding eighteen swimming pools with twenty in-house restaurants, they build Phase I. This might be a humble thirty units on the beach with a waterfall pool. They call it a “boutique resort.” So, being likewise under-funded, we would start small. Phase I, Prairie Boutique Resort, might consist of several modest single-wide trailer houses, each one with a rusted out car husk on blocks, sitting next to a plastic wading pool. Then, as sales escalated, we would quickly expand to double-wide mobile homes. And in that fashion, we eventually would reach the ultimate resort status, with mansions and condos worth billions of dollars, just like in western Montana .

Here’s how it works. Graphic artists would design rustic resort homes in a prairie setting, sort of a ghost town look, but with all the amenities. Better yet, we might steal pictures directly from real estate ads in those glossy Montana magazines. We could call the photos “previews of coming attractions.” We may be watching re-runs today, but watch us smoke!

Wait. Wait. I know what you’re going to say. We have to have a sales gimmick, something to create appeal. Otherwise, why would anyone buy a time-share in Harlem ? No problem. What we lack in ocean beaches or mountain lakes, we make up for in Isolation and Solitude: what better place to go to Totally Get Away From It All.

Otherwise-sane people spend millions annually on yoga, meditation, trips to ashrams in India, to seminars all over the world, searching for inner peace, a mind emptied of all chatter, a place of nirvana. We have it here for free! Walk out onto the prairie in any direction, sit on a rock for five minutes, and you too, can reach that state of empty mind others seek so hard to find.

We’ll “Build it and they will come.” For incentive to take our sales tour, we’ll offer a free cowboy breakfast of brains and eggs, ten bucks and a six-pack of Bud.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 25, 2010

Friday, March 19, 2010

The 61st Montana Seed Show - Building Community

More than potatoes
The 61st Montana Seed Show—Building Community

Along with hundreds of other folks from the Hi-Line, from cities and towns throughout Eastern Montana and with a few tourists from our sister state, Western Montana , I celebrated a shared heritage at the 61st Annual Montana Seed Show in Harlem last weekend. I like that it is called the “ Montana ” Seed Show, not the “ Harlem ” Seed Show. It demonstrates an inclusiveness that reaches beyond regionalism. And in a historically appropriate way, it took place at the high school, the traditional hub of every small-town community.

The Seed Show that I remember from my youth was held in the old Civics Center , a multi-purpose structure that burned to the ground in 1968. I remember long, narrow tables with trays of potatoes, sugar beets, grains, leafs of baled hay, and huge bags of wool. I remember the blended smells of agricultural produce. I remember the excitement of the pie and bread baking contests. Except for the absence of sugar beets, not a lot has changed.

Ours is still a farm and ranch community. We still grow grains, hay, beeves, and sheep. A few valley farmers still raise potatoes. But now we have less than two people per square mile in Blaine County . Throughout the area farms and ranches are larger; towns are smaller, most of them half the size they were when I grew up in the Milk River Valley . Harlem is fortunate in our diversity; we are lucky to have the Fort Belknap Reservation across the river and the two Hutterite Colonies north of town. The Seed Show has adapted to the changing times and is today a major regional winter fair.

Thursday was entry day with people busy building displays and bringing in entries for the various competitions. A steady stream of men and women popped in the door with a pie or loaf of bread or a baker’s dozen cookies in hand and deposited their goodies with the food superintendents. Many of them hurried off to another setting-up chore while others hung about to chat with neighbors. An enticing smell wafted through the school from pots of spicy chili, simmering in anticipation of the chili cook-off in the school cafeteria that evening. I reluctantly passed on the chili feed since I wanted to take advantage of the Blood Screening early Friday morning. But I’ve been thinking of recruiting a chili-making crew for next year.

Fasting is not my favorite non-activity. My veins burrowed underground when the nurse with the needle approached the tender bend of my arm. I hyperventilated. So I was glad to woozy my way to the cafeteria for breakfast served by the Civic Association. Orange drink never tasted so good. Egg muffins approached perfection.

Friday and Saturday were a circus of activity. In the new gym I enjoyed all the commercial and educational displays, even the vase of noxious weeds. I recognized these invaders of my flower garden, most of which I have struggled to eradicate. Art exhibits filled the old gym. The variety of talents on display drew me back several times. In the adjacent room I marveled at the intricate quilts and related needlework. In another area I admired the skilled women carding and spinning wool. I peeked at the vintage cars and tractors in the ag and industrial arts building. I enjoyed lunches served by church groups from Turner and Harlem , and, oh, the home-made pies! Every kind of pie imaginable!

Speaking of pies, it would not be a Seed Show without the auctions. Bob Sivertsen auctioned breads and pies and cookies, those entered in hopes of a blue ribbon plus those donated to support the Show. The Art Auction Friday night is always a top draw, but this year the Number One Star of the Seed Show was the grand prize pie baked by Havre resident, Char Burckhard. Char is a long-time friend. She graduated from Harlem High so we claim her as our own. Char’s cherry pie sold for a record high bid of one thousand and twenty-five dollars at the Saturday night banquet.

But people were the best part of the Montana Seed Show. I visited with old friends and new friends, with neighbors from near and far. I noted the diversity of peoples who populate our sparse country and saw, not their differences, but a blending, a commonality. I noticed a change in consciousness from the old days. I observed a sense of family. I saw cooperation; people reaching out to support one another. We were simply people from many communities who came together, without rivalry or division, to make this shared experience fun and successful.

In this time of economic uncertainty, I felt an underlying current of hope, of excitement, a sense of “we”. We can build a better life here. We can make it happen. We can work together. From hundreds of miles, we gathered in Harlem at the Montana Seed Show, to share our knowledge, our creativity, our production. We came together to work, to visit, to play and to eat pie. We shared in a true communion.

Sondra Ashton
Looking out my back door.
Havre Daily News, March 18, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Riding the Rails

Riding the Rails

I love trains. And that is a good thing because my home is plunk across the street from the tracks. I never did figure out why my Dad built his house here, where the trains practically run through the living room. He never did say. Maybe Dad liked trains too. I remember summer times when, out in the fields, we would hear the whistle and stop our work to watch the Empire Builder roll by. To this day, when I hear that lonesome whistle blow, I bless Hank Williams and fight off a hankering to hit the rails.

Back in high school my friend Charlotte and I day-dreamed of adventures, long bicycle trips, heading down the highway. We had no money, but we each had a bicycle. Bikes were different in those days. They had one speed and only went as fast as one could push the pedals. We planned elaborate trips to Chicago or Denver or San Francisco , our luggage a change of clothes and a bar of soap wrapped in canvas, tied on the rack in back. We planned to stop in small towns along the way. We imagined ourselves sauntering into the local café and offering to wait tables (Her) and wash dishes (Me) in exchange for food and maybe a cot in the back pantry. Then we would head down the road again in a few days. In our minds she and I criss-crossed the entire continental United States. We never once considered any risk or danger to ourselves. Our dreams never came to fruition. Once we graduated high school, we both got married, an altogether different adventure, much more risky and dangerous.

So I have never hitch-hiked or biked around the country, but I ride the trains when I get a chance. Living where I live, trains are ever present. Each train has a different whistle tone. Often when the Empire Builder halts on the tracks right outside my front door, I stand on my porch, lean on the railing, and wave to the passengers. In the middle of the night a 2:30 freight rumbles through town. For some reason, I always hear its whistle and it is a comfort to me. Much of the train traffic, though, is just wallpaper, background scenery.

Yesterday afternoon while I took a break from my work and sipped a cup of tea, I opened the door to watch a westbound freight slow nearly to a stop as it rolled through town on its trek toward the sea. Two men with a shepherd dog on a leash jumped from a boxcar. “Hoboes” I thought.

My imagination shifted into overdrive. The hoboes would see me standing in my open front door, cross the street, and say, “Ma’am, you got any work we can do for a bite to eat.” I would point to the snow shovel, the ice chipper, and my driveway, piled high with crusted snow.

While they worked I would go into my kitchen and make them thick, hearty sandwiches, brew a pot of coffee and carry it outside for them to eat. I would get a pail of water for the dog, Ralph. I would scrape together something for the dog to eat, perhaps the left-over meat loaf. In the stories that came out of the Great Depression the woman always carried the sandwiches outside for the hoboes to eat on the steps. I would ache to know who they were and where they were going, but I would not ask personal questions; the Code of the West, you know. Before they continued their journey, they would have chalked my door with the secret symbol, letting other travelers know I was an easy mark for a bite of food.

However, these two men did not cross the street. They did not clear my snow-filled driveway. I noticed that both men carried hiking packs that looked like state-of-the-art models. They wore insulated clothing and parkas, the kind you buy from LL Bean. There was nothing shabby about this duo. The men removed their parkas and stood alongside the tracks for several minutes in conversation. They had a relaxed look about them. The dog looked well fed and well groomed. I wondered why they taken to traveling in a boxcar. I know times are tough but these two did not appear destitute. They looked like they might have the rail fare along with a sheaf of credit cards tucked in their wallets. One man took a map from his backpack. After a few minutes, they tied their coats to their packs, slung the packs onto their backs and hiked down the street toward the highway and out of sight.

A part of me yearned to grab my own pack and hurry to catch up with them, to go wherever they were headed, to go beyond my everyday life. Oh, heck. I finished my tea, closed my front door, and went back to work.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
March 11, 2010

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Robert's Rules

Rules, rules, rules!

Robert’s Rules

“You have an overdue book.” It was Bev at the Harlem Public Library.

“Oh my gosh. I know right where it is.” I rustle through a month’s worth of papers and documents from various civic meetings, which I had dumped into the wing chair, until I triumphantly heave the book out of the pile. I meant to read it. Really, I did. “I found it. I’ll bring it back right away.”

My face is red. This particular overdue book hangs over my head like a newly sharpened scythe. I really meant to read it. Well, I mean, I knew I should have read it. Not that I wanted to read it. Obviously.

“Robert’s Rules of Order.” Revised edition. The only authorized edition of the manual on parliamentary law. The classic 1915 edition with a new foreword by Henry M. Robert III. I never cracked the cover.

I should get a copy. Preferably used. A cheap paperback. Because even if I buy it, there is no guarantee I’ll read it. But, I should read it because I am on the Harlem city council and other boards and committees. During a meeting, when I am unsure of parliamentary procedure, I have to lean over and whisper to my nearest neighbor, “Do I need to make a motion on this?”

Recently I was railroaded into presiding over a group mandated by its bylaws to run meetings according to Robert’s Rules. At one time, back in high school, I had a fairly good grip on Robert’s Rules. But that was mumbledy-mumble years ago. My grip has loosened and the Rules have plumb slipped from my grasp.

My solution, at this group’s first meeting, was to appoint another member, more conversant with Robert than myself, to call me on my mistakes. I assured him that I needed his help and would not be embarrassed at all. “Just keep me in order,” I told him.

I don’t understand why I find “Robert’s Rules of Order” so daunting. I read technical books. For example, one night recently I sat down to review the City of Harlem Growth Policy, about three inches thick, and became so engrossed that I read the whole thing through before dawn. That led me to follow it up with the Blaine County Subdivision Regulations, not light reading by anybody’s account. I fully expected both these books to be dry as dust. To my surprise the Growth Policy and the Sub-Regs excited me, threw me into action. The next day I was on the phone calling several people to discuss various aspects of what I had just learned. I felt like I was climbing a ladder of ideas and information, rung by rung.

Services come to us so easily. We take so much for granted. We flick the switch for light. We turn the faucet for water. We pull the chain for the flush. We drive streets cleared of snow. We cross the creek on a bridge. We set the garbage in the alley. We never give these things another thought.

To me, this learning is exciting. Oh, so that’s how this works. So that is why we have this policy or these regulations. These are formulas which enable a community to run smoothly. It begins here.

I know I have a responsibility to the groups in which I participate, to help get things accomplished. So why am I loathe to crack the cover on “Robert’s Rules”? It doesn’t make sense to me. Is it something about the title—“RULES?”

Am I reverting back to the tough independent spirit of bred-in-the-bone Montanans: I’ll do it my way? No, I don’t think so. I lean toward the belief that we citizens must partner up, pull together in concerted effort to get anything worthwhile accomplished, especially the everyday things we take for granted.

So the next time I’m in Havre, I’ll buy a copy of “Robert’s Rules” at the book store. If I keep the book on the lamp table next to my reading chair, sooner or later I will pick it up, out of guilt or necessity. I’ll read it and I’ll learn some things. Maybe I’ll find it fascinating. I’ll make room for “Robert” in my life. We may argue from time to time, but I suppose we can learn to live together.

Sondra Ashton

HDN: Looking out my back door

March 4, 2010

Like Falling Out of Love

By the end of February in Montana, tempers are on the short fuse.

Like Falling Out of Love

Last fall in Chinook I saw a marvelous play about the great storyteller, Edgar Allen Poe, presented by the talented young actors of the Montana Repertory Theatre. One thing I took home from this play, and that has stuck with me, is the idea of “Poe Moments.”

Poe Moments are those wonderfully evil thoughts we all typically have when confronted with an annoying person or situation. Unless one is a psychotic serial killer, and let’s assume we are not, we do not act on the thoughts; we sweep them beneath the rug of consciousness. Nowadays, instead of lifting the corner of my rug, I recognize the Poe Moment, wryly thank it for participating in my life, chuckle and get on with my day. Anything can trigger a Poe Moment.

This morning when I woke up, I groaned out of bed, hobbled to the window, saw several inches of new-fallen snow and mumbled, “I don’t love you anymore.” I checked the forecast for the next three days—more of the same. I was too depressed to look at the ten-day forecast. I have been house-bound for too many days, weeks, nay, months.

I watched the flakes drift to the ground, a blanket of white with shadows of blue, an obliteration of geography. I experienced a now familiar “Poe-e-tic” feeling. I growled and grumped through my morning routine. Certain years are more memorable than others and eventually assume a place in personal history as “the year that . . .” or “the winter when . . .” This evil winter, which seems bent on burying us beneath the snow, human popsicles, deserves a name. What better name than Edgar, in honor of Poe. Edgar Allen Winter, I salute you.

My friends in a more temperate clime accuse me of talking too much about the weather. I answer that for those of us who live in northern Montana , winter weather takes on a persona. This winter has become my most intimate friend/enemy. A friend, for his terrible beauty. An enemy, for his danger.

I sigh for those unappreciated years when I lived in the Pacific Northwest , where every day it rained and every day the temperature was forty-six degrees. Winter and summer I wore the same clothing. My monthly heating bill fluctuated minimally. I owned one set of tires for my vehicle. My car did not have plug-ins sticking like sloppy tongues out the grill, nor an extension cord greedily feeding it power at night. My heavy Sorel boots mouldered in the back corner of the attic.

This morning, in a moment of self-torture, I bowed in obeisance before my summer closet, lined with short-sleeved shirts I have not seen since October. My eyes glazed over with a feeling akin to lust. I cleaned the cobwebs from my sandals and placed them lovingly back on the shelf. I blew a kiss to my summer clothes, gently shut the door and promised to return in June.

Eventually I pulled myself together and hoisted my red flannel-lined jeans off the shelf of my winter closet. I wriggled into my long-sleeved merino wool pullover and topped it with a plaid Pendleton button-up shirt. I completed my wardrobe with knee-high wool socks. This is what I wear indoors.

This afternoon I went to the post office to mail a check to the power company, a check the amount of which required a bank loan. I pulled on my boots heavy with tire-tread soles. Then I struggled into my hefty winter coat, twined my scarf twice around my neck, jammed my wool hat onto my head and wriggled my fingers into my gloves. A fashion maven I am not.

A Poe Moment occurred when I battled to disengage the plugs from the extension cord to my van. I envisioned opening my mouth and with the breath of a fiery dragon I melted the mounds of snow and ice. In my imagination I lifted my dragon body into the air and blasted up and down every street, clearing the snow and flooding the alleys. Filled with dragon pride, I preened my feathers and soared out into the country, melting Montana to the beat of a tell-tale heart.

Edgar Allen Winter, no longer shall I worship your frost-crusted limbs, burn incense in homage to your diamond-sprinkled sky, or lift prayers of thanksgiving for the beauty of snow-blanketed hills. Edgar Allen Winter, I would carve you into little pieces and melt you in the incinerator. I don’t love you any more.

Sondra Ashton

Havre Daily News: Looking out my back door

February 25, 2010