Archive for September, 2009

“There can be in a man some evil. But we dont think it is his own evil. Where did he get it? How did he come to claim it? No. Evil is a true thing in Mexico. It goes about on its own legs. Maybe some day it will come to visit you. Maybe it already has.”Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

In a genre defined by John Waynes, Cormac McCarthy and Murder by Death give us Kurtz. They communicate–through written word and music–the toll of brutality on people who live it every day, who succumb to it, and the rare heroes who keep their moral compasses aligned despite horrific violence and the very real presence of evil. For the characters in Cormac McCarthy’s novels, every day spent above ground is a day filled with suffering, psychological torment, and events that make you question whether humanity is any good at all. Grammatical considerations, such as apostrophes and quotation marks, are superfluous when describing the trajectory of arterial blood spraying from a freshly sliced throat; McCarthy’s is a language of violence. It’s also a language that appeals to movie-goers, as three of his novels, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road have each been adapted for the big screen, with The Road scheduled to hit theaters in November.

Sharing McCarthy’s bleak aesthetic is American noir band Murder by Death, whose music is inspired by such works as Dante’s Inferno and the Old Testament. Their album, Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them, describes, track-by-track, the hopeless predicament of a small border-town in the clutches of the Devil himself, with titles like, “Until Morale Improves, the Beatings Will Continue,” and “Three Men Hanging.” The cinematic “Comin’ Home” from their latest album, Red of Tooth and Claw, recently received a little TV time in the trailer for Inglourious Basterds (click the following link to read a review of Red of Tooth and Claw: http://michaelmerline.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/murder-by-death-red-of-tooth-and-claw/). Murder by Death lends an epic quality to your Sunday drive through the badlands; in its cello and piano arrangements–ranging from McCarthy-esque starkness to rich, saloon-inspired melodies–you feel rumblings of “the dusty train that’s comin’ to sweep us all away” that they’ve been warning you about.

McCarthy and Murder by Death sift through the darkest dregs of history, folklore, and human nature and dig deeper, exposing something diseased, but redeemable. For both, the classic Western theme of redemption takes center stage, and in redemption, hope emerges. Those who maintain their humanity despite what McCarthy calls “hazards of fortune” might still have time to make things right.”Maybe, maybe we are all selfish,” sings Murder by Death’s Adam Turla in the closing track of In Bucca al Lupo, ” but maybe, maybe it isn’t over yet  … “


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When I was little, I fantasized about becoming a hermit. I didn’t want to run away from home, necessarily–I liked my home–and I didn’t really want to get away from people in the Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood sense.

When I was six until the time I was maybe 11, I spent most of my summers reading issues of National Geographic, copying entire articles on the migratory patterns of ducks and planning my own expeditions. I would spend most of my day navigating around beaver holes and rotting logs in the swamp below my house.

In the middle of the swamp was a small hidden pond my little brother and I would slide around on when it froze over in the winter, since it was usually too bumpy for skating. Sometimes a solitary moose could be seen standing dark and alien-like among stands of willows, but mostly I just saw whitetail, rodents, and water fowl. Surrounded by thick willows, perched on little stands of wobbly, moss-covered soil, I felt intensely isolated and alert. I would crouch at the pond’s edge without moving until my legs fell asleep, recording observations and illustrations in my little notebook. I collected feathers, sheathes of crinkly snakeskin and bits of fur and taped them in the appropriate sections later. Once, a fat muskrat slipped into the water right next to me, and I remember being thrilled that it seemed to regard me as a fixture of the swamp, like one of the many decaying stumps.

The land around my house offered a smorgasbord of exploratory potential–woods, marshland, burned marshland (which I imagined as the creepy province of werewolves), alfalfa fields, and stretches of arid rangeland sloping into steep cedar hills that framed the northwest corner of our ranch and gradually climbed into the foothills of the mountains. An irrigation canal one quarter-mile west of our house provided robin’s egg blue glacial waters for swimming and fishing in the warmer months and a winding trench to walk in once it dried out in the winter, protected from the wind and lined with old leaves from the cottonwoods on its banks. More than exploring, I enjoyed walking and being alone.

When it was time to go back to school, the learning I’d been doing all summer stopped. Wedged in a tiny desk and memorizing multipication tables couldn’t have been farther from what I wanted to do, and on my tiger calendar at home I marked the days of school that remained; it was always too many. It was about this time that I began to consider what life might be like elsewhere–at a cabin in the mountains, perhaps, where I could focus on important things like eating, staying warm, and learning about the world. I wanted to be Thoreau before I knew who he was. I wanted to live in a place with no rules, school, or money so I could decide what was valuable.

In the end, I just settled for spending my summers exploring a widening radius until hunger or darkness brought me home–usually wet, dirty, and carrying the bleached femur of a deer or odd-shaped rocks and pine cones (these I would showcase on a shelf in my room, along with tiny animal skulls, great horned owl feathers, and the brown husks of old cattle horns that I imagined belonged to ancient buffalo). Sometimes my mom and I would walk through the cedars under a full moon; the sandy ground gleamed whitley through sagebrush and we’d talk, walking out a couple miles up the road or back in the hills, and I can’t remember what we talked about but I remember feeling, as I don’t truly in the city, happy and very much myself.

Though I spend the larger part of those years at school, most of my memories are rooted elsewhere. Just as it was never the track meet I remembered but stopping to pick up milkshakes with my Grandpa on the drive home, my memories up until high school graduation rarely have anything to do with school, the other students, the sports I played or my classes. Those that do remain shadowy, like strips of gauze fluttering way back in the dark of my mind.

When the hermit idea came up, I remember feeling an urgency that I didn’t understand at the time, like this was something I had to do before it became too late. Practical issues, including the fact that I didn’t really know how to take care of myself in my current situation, prevented me from packing a few necessities and striking out on a Wednesday night in April, the day before the cafeteria was scheduled to serve taco pie, to save my life.

Sometimes, while listening to someone talk about their lawn, I find myself mystified by their enthusiasm on the subject. I find it difficult to grasp a society in which grass not only serves as an expression of one’s landscaping aesthetic, but also becomes an indicator of a person’s social class, work ethic, and commitment to the wellbeing of his or her neighborhood, community, and country.

At times like this, I think of my little imaginary cabin in the mountains, and more often, I think of all the times when, walking up a hill on Little Dry Creek Road, just before turning around to head home, I paused. To my west, the mountains loomed dark and unknowable beneath the first cold stars, and to the east, the light of my family’s lamp-post flickered on in the early evening darkness.  

Walking through the cedars on my way home, I would look back maybe three or four times until I passed the cattle-guard and the sign that read “No non-Indians allowed beyond this point.” It would start getting dark for real by this time, and my dad, looking out the window from his easy chair in the living room, would probably be the first to notice I was late.

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(Above: Did You Hear About The Morgans? movie trailer)

This is my nightmare–another movie about city-dwellers (Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant) moving out to the country against their will, this time, to a town called Ray, Wyoming. “Oh no, not there!” is very much implied. What could be further from culture and interesting things.

Stereotypes abound in the trailer–the Wyomingites (including a sheriff played by Sam Elliott) share folksy wisdom in Southern accents, wear flannel, and tote rifles. The phrase “rifle-toting” turns my stomach, as does “red state” and most of all, “high-powered Manhattan couple.”  

This is my nightmare because I know Did You Hear About The Morgans? will be one of those movies that comes back to haunt me two or three years from now, when I’m on a plane or watching the Oxygen Network, the Hugh Grant romantic comedy emporium.

Movies like this share one maxim: places like Wyoming are boring, but they build character. The people there may not be educated, but they’ll tell you a good yarn or two and surprise you with rare, perceptive comments. We could learn something from salt-of-the-earth folks like that.

And then we will naturally return to our  lives, looking down on the ranch from our airplane windows, the country-folk waving in their catalogue Western attire like they have don’t have a horse to break or a light lynching to attend at the town square. It warms the heart.  I mean, those people never get tired of baked beans. There’s really something special about that.

One more thing–Sam Elliott, you have failed America, yourself, and your mustache. Please let us remember you for Tombstone and The Big Lebowski and we’ll pretend this never happened.

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You are here

You look at a leaf lying on the sidewalk. It’s located to the right and below the middle of a concrete square. You look at the leaf and not at the sidewalk. This is wrong.

We rarely consider empty space part of the image, and that’s why you probably don’t assign importance to the sidewalk surrounding the leaf.

In the landscape of the American West, space dominates.  Here is prairie, a single fence-post anchored by barbed wire that dug itself into the red earth. Mountains slide like cool fingers into the horizon. You’re there, too. You thought you’d feel small, but you don’t.  The space between you and everything else is profound. It defines your aesthetic, your speech, the shape and density of your thoughts. The wind gives you something to walk against. The dust coats your throat, and your eyes water. No atmosphere out here–the sun fills up the valley.

In art, space may enhance the subject’s beauty, or cause its contours to slide away into a shapeless void. As you enter the open spaces of the West, take a moment to note the exact position of your figure, just on the north side of the intersection of two sagebrush, the angle of cloud-shadows sluicing over your left hand. Remember yourself–not a leaf, exactly. Then look up.

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What is she?

Note: This is an old post. It’s one of the first things I tried to write about race and identity. It makes me wince now, but I’m leaving it here as a testament to how hard it is to find the words, and how changing the way you think sometimes starts with saying things before you have the language and finding a narrative where there isn’t one and being generally sort of dumb. I’m not all that less dumb now. I’m still trying to find the words. ❤

“I’m more Indian than you are,” the girl told me.

We were at the lunch table.  I looked at her, at her blue eyes and blonde hair, sitting between her friends, two Native American girls. She did have one thing in common with them–she hated me.

“They’re jealous of you because you’re so pretty,” Mom told me. As a second-grader, even I knew better. They weren’t jealous. They were looking for a target, and I–one of two fair-skinned children at Crowheart Elementary School at that time–fit the bill. But it wasn’t just my skin.

Back to the lunch table.

“No you’re not,” I told the blonde girl.

“Yes, she is,” said Birdie, a fourth-grader. “The black things in her eyes are bigger.”.

I pointed out that at least my eyes were brown, and that Birdie and I were second-cousins.

“No, we’re not,” said Birdie, “You’re white.”

They wanted me to know that they disliked me because I was not Indian, but the truth was, they didn’t like me for other, less identifiable reasons. I cried easily. I had no friends–of any color–except a boy who had moved away last year. I spent recess breaks talking to the teachers, reading, or wandering off on my own, constructing things out of pine cones and talking to myself. My light skin was just the easiest thing to pick out.

As I defended my heritage (“My dad has papers,” I would tell them), a group of boys on the other side of our table began sharing new swear words, and from her adjacent table, the teacher’s ears perked to the sound of impending chaos. She stood up and blew from the whistle hanging around her neck–our signal to cease all noise immediately.

“That’s enough,” she said in the hush that followed. “If  anyone makes a noise, you’re going to lunch detention.”

I waited about three beats, and yelled. Not words, just a sound–“Ahhh”–like you make for a doctor inspecting your tonsils, but louder. I had imagined laughter from the other kids, but they just stared.

The teacher rushed around the table and took my arm. “Okay, Tasha, grab your tray.”

It was the Friday before Halloween; we had mud pie for dessert. Not the taupe slop I would eat when I transferred to another school in the fourth grade, but a multilayered ice cream cake with gummy worms sticking out of each piece, prepared by the school cook, Mrs. Hindman. I took my seat, a classroom desk that I would begin to think of as my own over the next two years, in the kitchen by the sink. Mrs. Hindman talked to me sometimes, in the way that an adult does when she pities you.

When I finally did transfer to  another school, the emphasis shifted to my weirdness rather than the color of my skin. I had preferred the latter–it was easier to handle. If people didn’t like me because of my race, my suffering carried a sweet heroic angle. All the Cheetos rubbed into my hair on the bus, the games I was barred from–these things I endured for a greater cause. But if they didn’t like my personality–if I was now being teased explicitly because of who I was rather than what I represented–well, that was an entirely different feeling.

In high school, my brother transferred to Wyoming Indian to play basketball, and begin spending a lot of time with the friends he met there. Ben is darker than me, looking faintly Middle Eastern, and blended in much easier than he did at the school I went to. Like his skater period, or the time he joined the LDS Church so that he could date a certain girl, I assumed this was another phase: Ben, the Native. A week later it would be Ben, the Goth–or Ben, the Environmentalist.

It annoyed me that he was embracing his heritage now when he’d previously shown little interest in it, and I dismissed it as simply another way for him to fit in. During one particular argument, I  started to tell him that he wasn’t any more Indian than I was–a measly 7/32nd–but then I stopped. For an instant, I saw us as we were:

Ben: Successful, as I never really was, in gaining acceptance from his peers.

Me: Replaying a scene from my childhood in which I experienced inevitable rejection.

We had been shaped by our heritage in different ways–Ben connected to it; I did not. For him, it is a source of identity; for me, an interested back-story, a unique little gem I could pull out of my pocket to dazzle friends in college, forgetting about it a few moments later. I grew up on an Indian reservation, I might say. My Dad is half Shoshone.

Maybe I’d feel differently if people were able to look at me and see it, but for the most part, my race seems clear: light skin, light brown eyes, and hair that’s slowly darkened from downy blonde to an inscrutable shade of brown. When people looked at Ben, they saw a certain truth–an Indian boy standing a calculated distance from his weird, white sister, who didn’t get him.

“The color of your skin has nothing to do with who you are.” This is said with trembling conviction by a woman on a talk show segment exploring racial inequalities.

Doesn’t it? I think.

Then she says something that I’ve heard many times, but today, makes my hand pause on the remote: “At the end of the day, you’ve got to be proud of who you are, whatever that is.”

A few years ago, a friend of my boyfriend’s parents saw a photo of me and asked my boyfriend, “What is she?”

As he recounted the story, he told me it took him a second to figure out what she’d meant. Then he’d responded, “She’s part Indian. Like Native American Indian.”

“I thought so,” the woman had said.

Despite myself, I’d felt a little thrill of victory rush up my spine. I told you.

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Close your eyes.

Imagine you’ve just ordered some hoppy IPA at a brewery in a city within one of the sprawling valleys of the Mountain West, and let’s say, just for fun, that you’re me. You (as me) sit at a table. Outside your window you see, in the late afternoon light, railroad tracks, and beyond that, the bleakness of a horizon in which the sky and the earth are about the same color. You are waiting. What you are waiting for is not clear–only the importance of waiting. You sip and wait. Sip and wait.

More specifically, here you are in Billings, Montana, the Magic City, the town that–being comatose–never really sleeps. This city of thousands rests in a profound state of unconsciousness, momentarily interrupted by the briefest of brain wave spikes–a concert, a really good panini.

It’s easy to knock it. Living in Billings doesn’t inspire the sense of pride that one might feel in New York City, or my hometown of Crowheart, Wyoming, a tiny ranching community that rarely reserves a dot on the smallest of maps. Billings–its population recently surpassing the 100,000 mark–is awkwardly in-between–tragically unexceptional.

Like many in the 20-30 age bracket, I moved here for college a few years ago, and well, just stayed. It’s not a bad place to live. Its proximity to the Beartooth Mountains, its quiet neighborhoods, and the occasional cultural event make it a great retirement site, and, having resigned from my job at the end of August, I’m taking a new shine to it.

Also like many people my age, I cling to the fact that Billings is one of the fastest-growing cities in the US, which may mean new prospects in the near future–although their nature is yet to be determined.

So yes, we stay. We stay because it’s not that bad of a place, really, and we imagine that we–rare visionaries–can see its potential. In the meantime, we think about going back to school and draft business plans so that we can be ready when the moment finally comes–the moment we’ve been waiting for, certain we’ll know it when it arrives.

You’re starting to wonder, though–sitting at your table, staring out the window–you’re starting to wonder if you might be missing something. You watch the bland horizon until it’s time to go. If it’s doubt that you feel, it’s only natural. Then you think, “Maybe I’ll open a sandwhich shop.”

View from my old downtown office window

View from my old downtown office window

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