You can stop telling me now.
Although, I am going to miss it when you list out the reasons for your dislike and then openly wonder how anyone could possibly choose to live in or in the vicinity of Billings. I’m also going to miss it when you tell me about the refineries and the sugar beet factory as if I’ve never seen them before.
I did like our chats though. I’ll fondly remember the times you used anecdotal evidence to make broad generalizations about the town and the people who live here. And I was very flattered when you told me that I don’t seem like I’m from Billings.
It’s been fun.
Montanans can be a judgmental bunch it seems. The Montanans who came from settlers, which I am one, judge you by how many generations your family has been here, while generally excluding Native Americans from their consideration. After that, we seem entitled to judge people based on which part of the state they live in - east or west - and then we judge the town people live in.
Never once have I asked someone, “so what do you think about Billings?” And yet, over the years, I have listened while people offer me their opinions about the town I grew up in.
When I was just out of graduate school, I began working for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado. We had meetings with folks from our Washington D.C. office and then went out to dinner that evening. I sat down next to a woman who I had just met for the first time that day.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Billings,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said and laughed.
“What are you sorry about?” I asked.
Then her apology started. She had assumed I would agree with her and that we’d laugh and then I’d explain to her how I had escaped from a shitty town.
It’s a American tradition after all. We give our opinions all the time, about everything, and many times without much thought behind them.
Years later when I was talking with my friend Wally McRae about the "where you from?" conversation that inevitably happens in Montana, he told me, "Never be ashamed about where you're from. Everybody has to be from somewhere."
I could go on and on and list out the different experiences I’ve had with people telling me what they think about Billings. Occasionally in Bozeman and Missoula I've been shocked at the disdain some people express. If you don't think this sort of attitude has long-term political consequences, think again. However, that is a conversation for another day.
When I was hemming and hawing about this topic, the question in front of me was, do I write a blog called In Defense of Billings where I list out all the great people, restaurants, galleries, and events that happen here? If I had taken that route I would also feel compelled to acknowledge the significant problems in our community. I’ve written about some of them before and I think it’s important to air them out in a public manner. Should I list the them so that you know I know they exist?
But I’m not going to try to convince you that Billings is worthy of a deeper consideration because I’m actually quite tired at this point of feeling defensive about it. Maybe one day I will. To be clear, I welcome actual conversations about Billings with people who either live here, have lived here, or at least have a tiny bit of affection for the place.
If I could, I would let you borrow my memories for a day. You could walk the alleyways and streets and see what I see. You could see the past, the present and the future swirling around in my brain. You could see what Billings was, what it is now, and what it could become.
What I’m asking is pretty simple; try to respect other people and their places and work to make your community better. If we all agree that it means something to be a Montanan, that it is an identity we are proud of, I hope we can spend more time trying to lift each other up and support all of our towns and communities instead of tearing each other down and making judgements that keep us divided.
The questions I’ll pose to all of us, myself included, is how does complaining and judging the places other people live help or lift anyone up? How does it contribute to solving the issues in our communities? How does it make the world a better place? To paraphrase a brilliant passage from an essay by Wendell Berry, it costs you nothing to be a critic.
I’ve always felt that the entire state of Montana was my home. I love every part of it. Every town and community is unique and has great qualities and also huge problems.
Many of us, in all parts of the state, from east to west, from north to south, in all different communities are trying to make things better.
We are all in this together so my suggestion, which you can take or leave, is we start acting like it.
A young mule deer buck walks westward in the open prairie. There is no cover for either of us. He had seen me earlier and wasn’t alarmed by my presence.
Him and I, we walk together for almost an hour, hundreds of yards apart, occasionally stopping to take stock of each other. At this moment he accepts me as part of his world and it feels good. We come to a small hill that splits us up. I arrive at the other side first and sit behind a large sagebrush plant.
A few moments later I see him, walking slowly and sometimes putting his head down to eat. He stops and sees me. He doesn’t look away.
I bring the gun to my shoulder and put my eye to my scope. I take the safety off and put my finger on the trigger.
I won’t shoot if you run.
He watches me.
A tear rolls down my check. My heart is beating fast. My hands are shaky.
I aim just behind his shoulder. He never looks away from me. I take a breath and when the air is almost gone, there is stillness.
I pull the trigger.*
It is morning. My goat Hazel is laying on her side. Her abdomen is contracting. She is screaming. This the only way I can put it. She sounds almost human. She is not pregnant although she is pushing like she’s in labor.
The year before she had delivered triplets, and a intrauterine tumor. At 2:00 a.m. on a Monday morning we loaded her up in the back of my Subaru, left her babies in the barn, and took her to a vet. The mass was huge. The vet sliced the tumor off her uterine wall, replaced the part of her uterus that had come out, and sent us on our way. Hazel raised all three of her babies.
There is no fixing it this time. I walk up to my house and grab my .22. My hands are shaking as I load the bullets into the gun. Shells are clinking to the floor because I can’t keep my hands steady. My dogs slink into the corners of the room.
Hazel is my favorite. We are friends. Sometimes we sit together and watch the sun set.
I can’t do this.
I have to do this.
Who can I call?
She doesn’t have time. I don’t have time.
I walk into the pen. My friend looks up at me and our eyes meet.
Somehow, she stands up and walks toward me.
I kneel down and my friend presses her head against my chest. She looks into my eyes. I tell her it’s going to be ok.
Hazel lays back down.
Tears are streaming down my face. My heart is racing. My hands are shaking.
I aim for her brainstem. When she looks away from me, I take a breath and when the air is almost gone, there is stillness.
I pull the trigger.
A friend of mine who ranches in eastern Montana asked me if I had seen a political commercial from Troy Downing attacking Senator Tester. I hadn’t.
I looked it up and watched Downing, who recently moved to Montana from California, strut around like a cock in front of some fighter jets (if you saw my roosters you would know what I say is true). Then you see a Jon Tester impersonator sitting on a small tractor playing a trumpet getting buzzed by a jet. He makes fun of Tester for being an elementary music school teacher and a farmer.
It is a tempting position to take that politics is so out of control now that political ads aren’t worth reacting to. Some might argue I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But today, right now, I can’t ignore this one. I am so blown away by the arrogance and ego of Downing that it is hard for me to articulate, in a thoughtful, calm way, how angry it made me.
Last month, I went to North Dakota to visit my 94-year-old great uncle who fought in World War II. He is a farmer. His dad was a farmer. His grandpa was a farmer. His mother was a teacher. His sister, my grandmother, was a teacher. You get the point.
Oh, and he also plays the violin. He taught himself during the Great Depression to pass the time and so he could play music for the community after harvest and planting. He told me they would roll up the rugs in their two story white farm house and dance the night away. He also brought the violin to Osaka, Japan and played for the men he was stationed with. He said when he played, the men would dance with each other since there weren't any women around.
I'll stop. The unmanliness of that is probably making Downing super uncomfortable.
The other side of my family homesteaded in Conrad, Montana. They were farmers. My partner’s family homesteaded near Williston, North Dakota. His grandmother was a school teacher, his grandfather and great-grandfathers were farmers. They all played instruments, lots of instruments, as many as they could get their hands on because they understood the value of music and community.
My sister and I play the piano. My dad played the trombone. He even received a music scholarship to attend Rocky Mountain College.
Somehow Downing wants us agree with him that people who play music are what? Effeminate? Weak? What? I can’t even wrap my head around this. If Downing believes this and thinks it is a valid criticism then he needs to use his words and say it instead of using innuendo and a pathetic attempt at humor.
I believe Montana still has a shot at overcoming the toxicity of national partisan politics but people like Downing aren’t helping us, instead he’s trying to drag us down into the muck with him.
To Downing, the people who grow food for us, educate our children, and create music that help make life beautiful, aren't worthy of respect. It is astonishing really, that someone who wants to represent Montanans would denigrate who we are and where we came from.
If he is so concerned about being accepted as a “real” Montanan, a good first step would be to show some respect to our history and the people whose professions are integral to our democracy.
Here is what the commercial told me about Troy Downing. He is small-minded. He is mean. He doesn’t understand what governing entails. He is incapable of speaking about policies and issues so instead he calls people names. He doesn’t understand Montana or Montanans.
However, I’m not going to give up on this guy quite yet. I’ll send him an invitation to my next “Don’t Be A Dick” training. I doubt he’ll come to it but if he did, I promise he’d learn a couple things that would help him in his political career.
For instance, I would tell him that even when you feel like telling someone to go fuck themselves, it is better if you take a deep breath, think about what you are going to say, use your words, and then write a calm, thoughtful blog about it.