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Life in Missoula, Montana.

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Life In General

Posts about our crazy modern world and how we deal with it.

Posted by on in Life In General

crowA gang of loud, raucous crows wheel and caw over my house. Black shapes flap and soar, calling out, croaking. They land in the trees and sit there glowering, watching. There is a constant squawking, one to another, as they hatch some menacing plan. If anything moves at ground level they gang and swoop, their throaty voices intimidating.

This is how my days begin. Five a.m. This gang of black-winged bullies taking over the skies above my house. If the cat goes into the yard, if a neighbor heads to their car, the crows shout at them until they go back inside. They land on the wires and sit in the trees, black, flapping shapes with ebony eyes. They look down on the green backyards,  cackling and cawing, until the yards are clear. A gang of thugs. A mob of bulliies. No, a murder of crows, that's the proper name for a group of them. A murder of crows dominating the early morning sky, turning and soaring in the dim light of dawn. That's how the days start in my neighborhood.

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The Original Winchester

Most people have heard of Winchester rifles. Under the ownership of Oliver Winchester, Winchester Rifles, under a variety of business names, made a number of important innovations to the modern rifle, and they sold in the tens of thousands. The famous Winchester Rifle was so popular that it became known as "the gun that won the West'. The first Winchester was the Model 1866, which became popular after the Civil War, and Winchester Rifles are still one of the world's best selling brands today. 

Sarah and The Winchester Ghosts

Over the past 150 years a lot of people have been killed by Winchester Rifles, but this was never a concern to oliver Winchester. He died in December of 1880 and his son, William Wirt Winchester inherited the company. Unfortunately, William died just four months later. His wife, Sarah Winchester, then inherited over 20 million dollars and a nearly 50 percent stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Accounts vary about what happened next, but most sources agree that at some point Sarah consulted a medium. One version says that the medium told Sarah to begin building a house and never to stop construction. If she did, the ghosts of those killed by Winchester guns would take her as they had taken her husband and other family members.

                                                 Winchester House

Construction Begins

Sarah bought land in San widbye, California and began building the house. Under Sarah's supervision, construction began in 1884 and continued around the clock, without interruption, until her death in 1922. The house was, at one point, seven stories a rambling, strange, twisted place with no master floor plan. It was made mostly of redwood, but since Sarah did not like the look of redwood, the entire house was painted. 76,000 liters of paint were needed to paint it. The house contains stairways that lead nowhere, oddly sized doorsand others that open onto blank walls, and windows that look into other parts of the house. One window is actually installed in the floor of one room. The hallways feature a maze of twists and turns as wel as several dead ends. Reportedly, Sarah Winchester had the house constructed to confuse the spiirts so that they would get lost and never find her.

win stairway

Confusing The Spirits

win doorThe house has 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces, 2 ballrooms, 17 finished chimneys, and 3 elevators. Although the mansion is huge there are only two mirrors because Sarah believed that ghosts were afraid of their own reflections. One of the house's famous windows was hand built by Tiffany. It was specifically designed so that outdoor light, when hitting the window, would fill the room with thousands of tiny rainbow prisms. Unfortunately, this window was installed facing a wall, in a room that receives no natural light. Sarah Winchester was preoccupied with warding off the evil spirits that haunted her house. The number thirteen and spider web designs were used throughout the house, since she believed they held great spiritual significance. She had an imported chandelier altered to hold 13 candles instead of 12 and even the drain covers in the sinks had 13 holes. She had a special stained glass window made in a spider web pattern that contained 13 colored panels.


When Sarah Winchester died, it took six trucks working eight hours a day six weeks to remove all the furniture. Today, visitors from all over the world flock to the famous Winchester Mystery House to take the 65 minute tour through 110 of the house's 160 rooms as well as the 45 minute tour of the basements. According to many accounts, the house is still haunted.


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I live in 'the middle'. The town where I live is in the middle of nowhere. Well, not really, but it's close. You know the part of the country that the national weathercasters stand in front of when they give the forecast? That's us. Missoula, MT is on the way to Seattle or on the way to Chicago, depending on which way you're going. The nearest major pro sports team is hundreds of miles away. Hockey? The Calgary flames are several hours north. Basketball? The Utah Jazz are just a day's drive south. You get the picture. 

In addition to that, I'm in that part of life that people call 'middle aged'. Just a few years ago i thought of myself as being in my mid-thirties. I wasn't, but like a lot of people my self-image just sort of got stuck there. Forty came and went, but in my head I was still thirty-something. But those days are fading. Like most people my age, I'm finding my normally reliable body is starting to betray me. I have the spine of a sixty year old rhesus monkey. Things that used to fix themselves are now long term concerns. This winter I ruptured a tendon shoveling snow. Yes, the middle. It's a big thing to deal with, mentally. It's here, get used to it.

The middle can be a good place. Less stress, less competition. by this time, hopefully you've learned a few things. You're out of the spotlight, which is nice for a change. You've probably achieved some of your goals or at least realized you were chasing the wrong ones. You can relax a little. If you've gotten to a good place in life, you can even coast a little. Enjoy what you've earned. There's a certain freedom in the middle if you just learn to embrace it.

So, here I am in the middle, where things move a little bit slower. If you look too far ahead, or if you spend too much time watching your rearview mirror, you can make yourself crazy. Quit thinking about where the road leads or the places you've been. I guess the answer is to enjoy where you are, wherever it is. Even the middle can be a pretty cool place, if you give it a chance.

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Missoula is a great place for writers. First off, a lot of great writers have lived here: William kittredge, Richard Hugo, Patricia Goedicke, James Lee Burke, Norman Maclean. The University of Montana has a great Creative Writing Program, and there's also a well-known writing collaborative. We have an event called Festival of the Book each year. Missoula is a great place for anyone who loves books.

I decided to be a writer a few years ago and I'm still transitioning in that direction. I've written ad copy for years, and written articles and other pieces, but now I'm trying to devote my time to fiction. I started to read all the books on writing that I could. I found a lot of online resources by writers for writers. I went to events and conventions where writers spoke and answered questions. As I said, Missoula has a lot of resources for writers. I tried to soak up as much info. as I could, and of course, i started to write.

A lot of books on writing focus on writer's block. On how difficult it is to sit and look at a blank screen and trying to write. Where do you get ideas? How do you get past the block? How do you silence that inner critic who tells you that none of what you do is any good? Luckily for me, writer's block has never been my problem. Stories write themselves in my head when I'm doing other things. Characters evolve. Plot points occur to me when I'm out hiking. When I sit down to write I often have to catch up with myself. More often than not, my problem is having to quit writing and work at one of my other jobs. Anyway for me, putting words on a page hasn't been a problem. Granted, I'm not writing The Great American Novel. I'm not writing timeless literature. I'm writing sci-fi, adventure stories, and a zombie novel, but at least I'm writing. I figure start with genres I can handle and strive for higher literature as I improve.






Missoula, Montana

In any case, I've written some short stories, one 'test' novel, and another that's on its second draft. I've learned a lot about characters, plot, setting, viewpoints. How to construct a sentence, how to edit my work. I've learned about how to think like a writer, and how to come up with a system that works for me. And I learned that I have a lot to learn.

The most important thing I've learned is that writing takes time. Lots of time. First there's the actual writing. I can squeeze in an hour on a busy day, but what really works for me is to sit down for two to three hours, at least, and just write. The more I get into it, the more easily things flow. One scene leads to another. Plot threads are easier to track. Viewpoints and dialogue are consistent. Three hours goes by fast. But the actual writing is only part of it. If you write, you're going to soon have a finished draft: short stories, flash fiction, entire manuscripts. You'll have to edit, and edit, and edit. Then you have to start looking for places to publish your work: web sites, magazines, e-publishing, actual publishers. You need a system for submitting your work to people and you need to send things out in very particular formats. Even writers who work with major publishers have to do a lot of their own PR and marketing. Then there's social networking and maintaining a blog. On top of this, I'm still looking at other people's blogs, still reading books and articles on writing, still trying to learn and refine the process. And don't forget to read a ton of books. The best way to learn about good writing is to read it. If you want to write in a certain genre you need to be reading what's current. And let's not forget that while you're doing all these other things you still need to write, or the whole process grinds to a halt. 

I've learned that writing takes a lot of time. Good writers need to have a lot of skills, not just the ability to describe a scene or tell a story. It's a process, like anything, and it has a lot of moving parts. To be good, you have to be a pretty good juggler and keep a lot of balls in the air. So why do people do it? Well, that's the most important thing I've learned. People do it because they love it. People do it because they can't not do it. An awkward sentence, I know, but there's no better way to say it. I write because stories weave themselves in my head whether I'm looking for one or not. They are going to evolve and progress whether I write them down or not, so I'd better sit down and capture them while I can. The stories entertain me, and even if no one else ever reads them I'm glad to set them to paper. To polish them up store them. I love the process of watching a story evolve, and I understand now why writers write. Now, if you'll excuse me I need to go write.

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One of the events that make my town of Missoula unique is the WildWalk parade. The WildWalk is part of the International Wildlife Film Festival, the longest-running wildlife film fest in the world. WildWalk is a chance for kids to dress up like their favorite animals, and parade down the main street through town, but this being Missoula, a lot of adults dress up too.



They always have drummers leading the parade. This year my friend Matthew Marsolek led the parade, and he invited me to come and be part of the rhythm. It's fun to lead a bunch of kids dressed like animals down the main street of the city where you live. We had four djembe players, two people playing dunun drums, one guy playing a samba-type drum. We played West African rhythms such as Madan, Sinte, and Sofa as we walked, sloooowly, down the street. Other drummers and their family members played bells and shakers. We were followed by tigers, sharks, butterflies, owls, even trees. Kids who were too little to walk came along in strollers.

We ended at a local park where local group, Drum Brothers, played African rhythms and songs. Kids and their parents watched and danced and the 36th Annual International Wildlife Film Festival was officially underway.


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