Montana Life

I’ve read that humans perceive some numbers on a logarithmic scale, rather than a linear one. On a linear scale, the difference between 1 and 2 is the same as the difference between 50 and 51. On a logarithmic scale, the difference between smaller numbers is much more pronounced. 2 is 100% more than 1, while 51 is only 2% more than 50. I’ve read that this is why it feels like time moves faster as you get older. Each year is a smaller percentage of your overall life, so it feels like it takes less time. I’ve also read that new experiences make time feel slower.

I just spent the last 27 days in Montana, from July 7th to August 2nd. I wasn’t originally planning on staying for so long. A few months ago I scheduled flights for a high school ten-year reunion on July 9th, and a family reunion on July 30th. The day before I left for the first flight, I realized that I had little reason to come back to Oakland in between.

I scheduled the original flights around work, but I didn’t have that job anymore. I needed to look for a new job, but I could do some of that groundwork from Montana, and it would be cheaper to live with my parents for a few weeks anyway. My boyfriend Will was also willing to watch my apartment, and my cat Niko, while I was away. I don’t normally have a chance to spend this much time in Montana, so I took it.

I thought it would healthy for me to spend some time away from the city, a place where I could relax and let off some stress. I could spend some time with the dogs, walk around the woods, take some pictures, look at the stars, visit some old friends, and spend some time working on music. It would also be a nice detox from Overwatch, a game I’ve been playing a lot lately.

I was also thinking about my parents, and how it’s rare that I get to see them for more than a few days at a time. I like my parents, and I thought they would appreciate time with me as well. This was a good chance to get some quality time in with Chuck and Cathy Loucks.

So I packed a little extra, and the next morning I was off to Montana.

* * *

The high school reunion went well. A group of about thirty of us met near the river in Polson, ate food, played beer pong, and caught up on the last ten years. The people I hung out with most in high school weren’t there – many of them were a year under me anyway – but everybody was welcoming and friendly. It was nice to remember my hometown and the home town people.

After the reunion I met up with some of my old friends that were still in the area. We were hanging out at their friend’s house, and I liked being in a Montana house again, tucked in fields at the base of mountains. These views lose some of their impact when you see them every day, but they’re always beautiful. We watched a pirated UFC stream, and I got in a nice couch nap. We threw a football in the yard, and I took some pictures of the sunset. I spent the night at Jayce’s apartment, falling asleep after we played Overwatch on their PS4.

The next day I got to sit in on a music recording session. Two guys from Kalispell were in town to work with my friends, and I got to see them in action. I’ve been picking up digital music production as a new hobby over the last few months, and I’m still very much a beginner. It was really helpful to be able to observe people that have many years of experience. To see their raw process. The hardware they use and how they set it up. The way they used the software and the processing and effects they added along the way. The way they recorded a live synthesizer and a live guitar. The way they talked about the music and their goals with the track. The way they structured their recordings and put together a full first version. I learned a lot.

We took two breaks other than smoke breaks. We sat in Logan’s room, and they shot the shit on underground hip hop. Logan was playing select songs from his vinyl collection, and each song came with a story about a show somebody went to or an artist they had met. Each story transitioned into a new song that logan would excitedly fish out of his collection. I got an unintended lesson in the underground hip hop scene of Montana, told through their favorite tracks.

I slept on Jayce’s couch again that night, and drove the hour and a half back to my parents’ place in the morning.

* * *

For the next twenty days I was trapped at my parents’ house, just the three of us. The car had a problem, so I couldn’t use it anymore. I might have visited other cities otherwise, maybe even made the trek over to Seattle, but it was not to be. I would be in Plains until the day I left. It was time to settle in to my temporary home and pass the time until the rest of the family showed up for the reunion..

My parents are renting a house in the woods. The turnoff is about two miles outside of Plains, and about a mile up the mountain on a dirt road. It’s not a house I grew up in. It’s actually about three houses removed from the one I grew up in, so it’s not even one I spent college summers or Christmas at. I recognized some of the stuff, but I would expect more nostalgia if I also recognized the place. The couch is short, too small for me to nap on.

Instead of staying in the guest room, I slept in the camp trailer in the driveway. It would be nice to have my own space, and the trailer had air conditioning and working outlets. I could barely get wifi in the back of the trailer where the bed is, enough to get Netflix working 75% of the time, but casual browsing was better done inside the house.

It was easy to slide into a routine. I’d wake up at 10am and turn on the air conditioning, then keep sleeping until a little after noon. Then I’d put on my dad’s flip flops and walk inside. My dad was usually puttering around, tinkering with something in the garage, taking the dogs for a walk, making a run to the dump or the post office or the grocery store. My mom was usually on the couch with the TV on, playing a casual game on her laptop, I never did ask which one. Then we’d sit on the front porch at four, before hot tub time at five, dinner at seven, bed by nine.

The TV is one of the first things I notice when visiting my parents. It’s usually on, and it’s distracting. The commercials are loud, and the content is limited. You get one of three programs on that TV.

1) People racing cars. NASCAR, usually. We don’t like this Kyle Busch guy. We like Ford, I think. We used to like Dodge, we had a Dodge, but they’re not racing anymore. There were a lot of crashes this time, seemingly whenever they would restart. The other race was called early because of fog. We like the guy that won that race, the young rookie.

2) Couples looking at houses. Some of them want to buy a vacation home on an island, so a realtor is showing them three options to choose from, and they debate the strengths and weaknesses of each. (Which one will they choose?!) Another couple stars in a show about buying houses, renovating them, then flipping them for a profit. (Will they make money?!) Another show pits a renovator against a realtor, and a couple must choose to keep their renovated house, or move into a new one. (Will they stay?!)

3) Cop shows, the most prevalent genre. Earlier in the day it’s Cops proper, arresting dumb criminals and drunk rednecks. Then you enter the true crime drama phase, where some retired detective takes you through reenactments of a real case from their past. Or there’s one where a reporter interviews the family members of the victim as they walk us through the case. (That one weirds me out.) Then you get Law & Order, where fictional cops and lawyers catch fictional bad guys, usually alongside some sort of social justice or political storyline. They also like Blue Bloods, where a whole family of cops catch bad guys while also learning more about family. Whichever show is on, I’m telling whoever is talking to the cops to stop talking and get a lawyer, but the room rarely appreciates my commentary.

In the mornings, before I wake up, my dad watches shows like Game of Thrones, Narcos, and Marco Polo. I told him he should watch Breaking Bad next.

A Christmas or two ago I bought my parents some kind of Amazon box that streams Amazon video, as well as apps like Netflix and HBO Now. This was so my dad could watch his shows, and I hoped my mom would find some as well. She watched all of Justified, and I also got them to watch The Jinx.

On this trip, I told her we should watch Making a Murderer. I thought of it as a good version of the usual true crime drama reenactment show. They watched the whole thing while I was there, and I caught a few of the episodes with them. I felt bad a little bad at the end, it’s kind of a downer, but I was glad they saw it. I think they liked it.

Their usual cop shows are formulaic. They always get the bad guy, and the cops are always the good guys. If a cop isn’t a good guy, then they’re a bad guy, and they get caught and punished within the hour. People always cooperate with the police, unless they’re guilty. The police never assault innocent people. The good guys never nudge a story towards their biases. In my mom’s words, “It’s like a Hallmark show.” Neat, orderly, and good triumphs over evil. I thought it was good for them to see a show that questioned law enforcement, both police officers and the judicial process.

This doubt, the questioning of authority, is an important element in Making a Murderer to our culture. In order to get people like my parents to believe that there is systemic racism in law enforcement, they have to be able to accept that the law enforcement process is flawed. That all it takes for the judicial process to convict an innocent person are the actions of one or two corrupt individuals trying to nudge a story a certain way. That rest of the system is built in such a way to constantly reinforce those actions, over and over, rather than question them. Making a Murderer tells this story from the perspective of a white man from a poor family. I hope this perspective will help poor white people come to accept that black people aren’t the problem.

* * *

I had a lot of free time.

I worked on music quite a bit. I brought a MIDI mixer, a device with a partial piano keyboard and knobs and such. I finished a song I had been working on for a while, but fell out of love with it a few days later. I learned a lot about the software with that track, which I could feel good about. Then I focused on music theory. I started using a notebook to sketch out the structure of a track, and the chords involved. I thought I would finish more tracks than I did, but I learned quite a bit anyway. I’m still planning on wrapping up some tracks up and releasing something before too long, just to keep putting stuff out there.

I watched some Netflix, but made sure that’s not how I spent the majority of my time. I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close after somebody recommended it on Facebook. I watched a couple Louis episodes I hadn’t gotten to yet. I watched ET on a whim. I watched Comedy Bang Bang and am somewhat fascinated by it. Then I found Stranger Things and watched the whole season, loving every minute, and glad I had just watched ET.

I spent time chatting with my parents. I joined them for 5-o’clock-hottub-time every-other day. (The days I didn’t shower, basically.) We talked about the upcoming reunion, the people that were going to show up, and whatever story from the past we could remember about them. We talked about work and the search for a new job, and times they’ve had setbacks in their careers. We talked about health and aging. We talked about politics, not very much, but still probably too much.

I went for a couple of short walks. I found a really great place, just past my parent’s back yard, technically past a neighbor’s NO TRESPASSING sign, but not much. It was this overlook, where I could see the entire town of Plains, tucked under Mountains, surrounded by its namesake

I took a lot of pictures of that view, most of which look the same. I also took pictures of my mom’s knick-knacks in the yard. Wooden bears and ceramic pigs and metal frogs and cement turtles. I took pictures of my dad’s stuff in the garage, saws and clamps and wood. The best pictures I took are of the dogs, and my parents.

* * *

Family showed up on Friday the 29th, a welcome break from the usual. First we had aunt Lorna, my dad’s sister, and cousin Chelsey, my aunt Judy’s daughter. Sadly, Judy passed away about three years ago, and this was our first family get-together since. Then we welcomed uncle Kelly, Judy’s ex husband, and cousin Chuck(ie), Lorna’s son. Many of us hadn’t seen Chuckie for ten-plus years. Then uncle Bernie rolled in, my dad’s best friend for fifty years, as much a part of the family as the rest of us. Lastly, in came my dad’s brother, uncle Dennis, and his son, Brian. I hadn’t seen Brian for a long time. I was thankful for the three days we all had together.

I was always the youngest in my family, so it was odd to feel like I was one of the adults all of a sudden. I wasn’t used to talking to my cousins as peers. The four cousins went down to the river one day and sat in it to escape the heat. It was fun catching up and feeling like the old gang again, in our own way.

The older generation, the aunts and uncles, spent the day battling the heat, until they could finally settle around a campfire at night – the fire being more ambiance than heat source. They would drink and tell all the old stories, spreading the Loucks family oral history. Most of these stories were only made possibly by heavy drinking.

We had Uncle Charlie (not present) crashing in The Race of the Vegas and relieving himself in front of the police officer that responded. Bernie and Chuck making Dennis ride in the back of the truck on top of a pile of Stolen Lumber in the rain, “so that none of it would blow out.” Chelsey Spilling Three Drinks in a row on Judy, “and I hadn’t even been drinking yet!” Charlie’s Toupee. The Lost Cat in Vegas. The Fight on Prom Night. All your favorite classic hits, and more! My family has always been a storytelling family, and I think it’s a big part of why I like writing and telling my own stories.

On Sunday, after dinner word was spreading that we were gathering around the fire to wish my dad a happy birthday. The scattered groups grabbed their chairs and drinks and whatever else they needed, and eventually we were all settled around the fire. We wished my dad a happy birthday, aunt Lorna gifted him a bottle of scotch and passed around the card, and story time continued. It was my dad’s 65th birthday.

That generation is hitting their mid 60’s, retiring, and switching to medicare. I kept thinking about how important affordable health care is. Most of them were moving carefully and avoiding stairs. Most had regular prescriptions. Aging is hard on your body. At some point the struggles of your body overtake your experience, and jobs get harder to do. This makes paying for medical care more difficult, and caring for yourself is expensive. Your reduced ability to recover physically also hurts your ability to recover economically.

Seeing them has made me pay attention to my own body more. It’s easy to get used to your body improving naturally in those first 20 or so years. That’s the time when you’re mostly just gaining features. I didn’t notice, as my body coasted through my 20’s, that the upgrades had stopped. Seeing my family again made me realize that, from here on out, I can only lose options. Now, it’s about preservation.

Losing aunt Judy was tough on the family, and it took us a few years to recover enough to get together again. I know we felt her absence, but I think it also emphasized the importance of coming together. Seeing my family was incredibly valuable, and I don’t think I was the only one. I love them all, and even though we’re very different, I feel loved by them. They all seemed genuinely glad to be together, genuinely interested in catching up and breaking bread and telling the old stories.

* * *

Suddenly, it was my last day, just me, my parents, and Lorna. The house was calm again, a startling return to the old routine. I could feel that I was about to leave, that this world was about to become distant again. I knew what I was going to do that night. I had to say goodbye to the stars.

After the family went to bed, and after the sun was down, I grabbed my dad’s flashlight. I climbed up the hill in the backyard, and found my way through the darkness to my favorite spot, the overlook. I could see Plains, a small collection of lights around a highway, partially obscured by a smoky haze. When the wind shifted, it was warm and smelled like a forest fire. I turned off the flashlight, and laid down on the rocks.

There were the stars, in a wide open moonless sky. I watched the milky way, spanning the horizons. I saw a few shooting stars, and the big one left a momentary streak. I saw the Big Dipper, but no other constellations I could remember. I saw flashing planes and faint satellites. I saw the stars I had been missing.

We live in a weird time. We’re able to look at the stars and know what they are, and we’re able to take that knowledge for granted. I try to imagine what it would have been like to spend every night under the stars, as ancient man. To spend your whole life looking and wondering. It’s impossible for me to really pretend to look at the stars for the first time, without previous knowledge. I find it amazing that while it’s impossible to know what that view could have felt like to ancient man, we’re still looking at essentially the same thing. I imagine how familiar the stars would become if you saw that clearly every night.

Heck, we’re probably looking at essentially the same view as other intelligent life in the universe, and maybe even other universes. Do they look up and see a sky full of their own stars? I wonder about the ways this shared view connects us, despite how unimaginably different we probably are.

I flew into Oakland last night, and felt upside down. The sky was barren and washed out, but the city was magnificent, lights spread to every corner of view.

It feels weird now, being far away from the Montana life, both in space and time. I can visit that place, I can visit those ways, but I’m not living it anymore. That life has passed. From here on, at least for a while, I’m counting those experiences on my fingers. Maybe I’ll move back one day, or maybe I’ll find my own Montana somewhere else. It’s hard to know where this is going.

In the end, I found the perspective I was looking for. I’m glad I took some time for myself.