Cats, and the Herding of Them

April 26, 2007 at 5:35 pm (Uncategorized)

cats.jpgI haven’t had many opportunities lately to work on this blog. For one, I’ve had actual, honest-to-God work to do, which, let me tell you, can certainly get in the way of soliloquizing. Second, I’ve been preoccupied with what I’ve affectionately been calling my TFH (tooth from hell). Yesterday I finally had part one of a root canal performed. Hopefully, this friendly little $1,800 procedure will help alleviate the constant, gnawing pain I’ve been having, and thus make it easier for me to concentrate on thoughts and words.

However, the major obstacle to me writing lately has been my husband Jay’s work schedule. He has spent the last few months trying to negotiate a settlement between one of Montana’s largest Native American tribes and the state about various water issues. Truthfully, I don’t understand a whole lot about what is involved. Whenever Jay starts talking about his job, he starts tossing out legal and geological technical terms, and pretty soon, all I can understand are words like “and,” so I start nodding my head as if I comprehend him, but really, I’m bobbing my head in an attempt to make my TFH stop hurting. All I can tell you is that in his current capacity, Jay has to get various state agencies, a tribal council, three distinct federal bureaus, and various confederations of Montana farmers and ranchers to agree. Its like herding cats. And then, once you’ve herded them, coaxing the cats to each balance on one leg, play the viola, and hum the choral part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Impressively, he got them to do pretty much everything but the humming part, and then everyone freaked out, dropped their violas, and ran back to their respective bureaucracies.

The result is that he has been spending an inordinate amount of time on Montana’s so-called Hi-Line, a windswept and sparsely populated stretch of Northern Montana, just below the Canadian border, that features metropolitan hot spots like Havre (pronounced Hav-ur), Cut Bank, Shelby, and Valier. Though the landscape can be bleak, it is strangely beautiful. You can see the northern Rocky Mountains of Glacier National Park looming out of the undulating and seemingly endless prairie. The wind seems to scrub the air and the people on the Hi-Line. There’s not a lot of flowery speech or grand gestures up there. The farmers rely on water; the towns rely on the farmers, and the Tribe wants to rely on the water in the future. Nobody especially wants to trust a lawyer, especially one that is asking them to play the viola – or, in this case, give up a piece of what they want. I find it doubly impressive that my husband (the viola touting attorney) made friends and advocates among all the different factions and contingents, even the lawyer-hating ones.

Jay’s peregrinations around the desolate vicinity of Highway 2 has meant that I’ve been home, temporarily single-parenting my three-year-old son Andrew, for significant stretches of time. I’m pretty adept at finagling dinner invitations out of friends, and my parents frequently drive four hours to help out with my busy boy when Jay is gone. Nevertheless, I’ve had more than a few nights alone, when Andrew has tossed his dinner on the floor, refused to get out of the bath tub, or boycotted his bed, and all I want is to call out “tag” to my husband and switch off parenting responsibilities. But Jay can’t quite come coax Andrew into bed when he’s convincing a roomful of taciturn farmers to give up some water. Same skill – different setting. Darn those laws of physics that mean we can’t coexist in two places. Leaving matters of physics aside (at least until they figure out a way to beam my child back into his bed a la Star Trek in the middle of the night), I am proud of Jay and the inroads he made.

But on more than one occasion, my selfishness and grumpiness have gotten in the way of me being wholly supportive of him. I mean, the guy was working ninety hour weeks and conducting six-hour long conference calls on the Saturday before Easter. There is only so much to say about water, right? Apparently not. Apparently, there are more words to speak about water than there are drops in the ocean, and my husband must have uttered some high percentage of them in the past months. I was cranky – and even surly – when he’d come home from the office at ten o’clock at night, or when he’d be gone for days at a time. I complained about being alone; I griped about his absence. I should have done a better job standing by his side, just as he has been by mine at various medical facilities around the country, at endless diagnostic procedures, at many nights when I’ve been too sad and too afraid to talk. He never said, “What about me?” Or, “How much more can we say about sarcoidosis.” He was just there.

Jay has many good qualities. He’s smart; he’s funny; he’s handsome; he can run a marathon; he can coax Andrew to sleep three nights out of ten (which is a nearly miraculous average); he can quote books he’s never read; he can write a legal brief one day and a funny essay the next; he calls his grandmothers every weekend. But what Jay does best is be loyal. He will never abandon a friend, never walk out on someone, and, I’ve learned, will work himself to death out of loyalty to the people involved. Jay believed in those farmers and those Native Americans. And just like he’ll never (or else!) walk away from me because I’ve gotten very ill and very chubby, he wouldn’t walk away from endless conference calls, from various factions pointing their fingers and flinging down their violas. He made a commitment to work on negotiating a deal, and once he pledges something to himself and to others, there is no going back.

There were many evening when I wished Jay would be less scrupulous in herding his water-related cats. But, if he had half-assed a meeting or “forgotten” a call, he would have been miserable. He would have been untrue to himself. There are many things love can ask of another, but to require someone to be unfaithful to himself is not one of them.

I think I also realized somewhere in the middle of this extended process that Jay actually likes gigantic bureaucratic messes (such as these extended water negotiations) precisely because they are ungodly messy – and he still has a chance of fixing them. He has told me time and again that the aspect he hates most about me having chronic, multi-systemic sarcoidosis that resists all treatment is that he can’t do anything to make me better. He can’t halt the disease’s progression; he can’t make my own ridiculous immune system stop misfiring; he can’t make my body magically absorb the drugs. All he can do is stand by me, which is does (and does well), but that doesn’t feel like enough to him. The wild cats of sarcoidosis refuse to be herded, and express no musical inclination whatsoever.

He’s come excruciatingly close to nailing out an agreement. It might stick, or it might all fall apart because of political agendas. Whatever the outcome, I think my steadfast husband has enjoyed being enmeshed in a tangled, tortured Gordian knot that he had at least the chance of cutting. Or else, maybe he’s just a repressed cat rancher, always on the lookout for a herd of felines and a rousing musical refrain.

1 Comment

  1. Lori said,

    Honestly, Rebecca, you forgot to mention the metropolitan hot spot of
    Chester…..after having spent ~2 years up there doing field work in the
    Sweet Grass Hills dealing with similar water issues between the Montanans and Canandians, I know about Chester. By the way, the bad mitton set will be up this weekend and the sand box still has trucks in it. I’d love to sit and chat with you. Much love, Lori

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