Montana Voices: Going for a fresh start in new America

The Fourth of July. Time to focus.

David Crisp

No more post-election moping. For months after Election Day, I had been waking up at 5 a.m., or even earlier, to pass the sleepless hours listening to “Morning Joe” on MSNBC. But now I have learned that Mika Brzezinski suffers from facelift bleeding and co-host Joe Scarborough’s years of loyal Republicanism have earned him the labels of “Psycho Joe” and “liberal media.”

I’ll be better off without them. Joe talked too much anyway, and Mika had a way of throwing in quiet asides that I couldn’t hear because others on the show talked over her.

I’ve turned over a new leaf, maybe even a whole tree. You see, when I closed the Billings Outpost in January 2016, I also closed the door, almost literally, on the upstairs office where I assembled the weekly paper for the last few years of its existence. As it turns out, old newspapers die all at once but never without a trace.

Copies of the Outpost and assorted trade papers cluttered the attic. Obituary notices, old movie listings, news releases, unpursued news tips and unused letters to the editor piled up so high in my desk drawers that I could no longer close them. Defunct computers, scanners, adapters, connectors, extension cords, copiers and printers weighed heavily on our house’s crumbling foundation.

There it set, mostly untouched, until this summer. At last, I decided, it was time to lay the whole dismal past to rest. I began plugging away at the job for a few hours every day, throwing away old bills by the bucketful but stopping to turn over every scrap of paper that brought back a memory or might have some future function. Some stuff I wrote 30 years ago, work a stranger might have done, still seems to hold up pretty well, a tribute either to the quality of the work or to the stubbornness of false perceptions.

From the Outpost office to the book collection I went. In all those Outpost years, boxes of old papers and computers so filled the attic that the book shelves were practically unreachable. New books were piled randomly on shelves, sometimes in stacks a couple of feet high.

All the junk had to be cleared away and the books reorganized. Does Whitley Strieber’s “Communion: A True Story,” an account of his alleged contact with aliens from outer space, go under fiction, which is how it struck me? Science? Memoir? Do all of those books about Custer that seem drawn to me go under general history? Or in the Montana collection of the many books I would never have acquired if not for review copies?

At last the work is nearly done. All 25 volumes of the “Historians’ History of the World” (1904 edition), which have accompanied me on 25 moves across half the continent are together again in a place of honor. The Pogo books have emerged from behind a pile of boxes, the baseball collection is a team again, the journalism books in their fake news corner, the Russian novels rescued from diaspora.

Still to be resolved is what to do with those self-help books we somehow have acquired over the years: “I’m OK, You’re OK,” “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and the like. Psychology? Anthropology? The pile of books to be donated to the library?

I’ve always formed first impressions of people based on the books on their shelves. It’s an outdated approach, of course; my worst freshmen students now have access to more books on their telephone than I have seen in my life. Even the “Historians’ History,” one of my life’s great burdens, is available for free online.

But old habits persist. So what do my books say about me? It’s a mixed bag, I’m afraid, perhaps typical for a journalist: scattered, self-indulgent, a bit autodidactic, too inclined to blow with the fashions of the day, a tad pretentious, but still with plenty of good stuff to read, and read again.

And I’m getting better every day. Out with the easy guide to solving the Rubik’s Cube. In with an English translation, in rhyme, of Dante’s “Inferno.”

My reformation continued over the Fourth of July weekend. We spent it near Missoula, where my daughter and her husband struggle to make a living, raise a child, maintain a dozen acres and fix up an old house, all at the same time. They don’t watch much TV because they don’t have time and figure it’s bad for young Arthur’s growing brain, so the weekend threw a few grains of sand into the grind of daily scandal.

We pitched in around the house, mowing, weeding, installing screen doors, buying curtains. We even stopped by to see Charlie’s Hudson Collection in Missoula, a fleet of 15 old Hudsons that Charlie Nau lovingly maintains in running order. A Hudson was the first car my family owned in my lifetime, a car so far back in my history that my most vivid memory of it was in a dream I must have had when I was 3 years old.

Charlie wasn’t around, but we could see four Hudsons through display windows and another parked outside. None of them looked like the car I remembered, but it’s hard to be sure the car I remember even existed.

July 4 itself we spent in the classic American way: not with flags, fireworks and burnt burgers but patrolling the great arteries of American commerce along Reserve Street in Missoula. People sometimes think of, say, deep Eastern Montana as the middle of nowhere, but the real nowhere is along America’s busiest streets, streets that show up in indistinguishable fashion in cities from Denver to Dallas to Des Moines.

I don’t normally shop on major holidays, on the theory that so little now holds us together as Americans that we ought at least to close the stores and celebrate some holidays as one people. But not this year. It turned out that the screen doors we had bought the day before, complete with all screws and fasteners, were actually missing about 20 screws, and we had to go to town to get them. We made an afternoon of it: major retail big box outlets, heavy meal in a chain restaurant, even a tank of gas that we didn’t strictly need.

It was the most American day I’ve spent since the election. And there will be many more like it; I promise. No more bleeding facelifts or Psycho Joes in my TV diet. Well, except a peek, every once in a while. Before I go cold turkey, I want just a taste of giblet gravy. It’s the American way.