Monday, December 31, 2001


As I write this I'm just minutes away from heading out the door to our Best Ever Impromptu New Year's Eve Party. My ice fishing buddy, my brother in anthropology, the pumpkin/rock guy and the physician's assistant (there to keep the rest of us from overdoing it, perhaps?), and who knows who else will soon be partaking of a fabulous fish dinner of freshly caught trout and other delicacies, Guiness (it really does go with everything, even fish!), many different wines and asti at midnight.

Originally we had planned to go party hopping – all four Saratoga bars are open all night and have DJs and other hijinks planned, and Saratoga's one local band is due to play at the big fancy roadhouse just outside the city limits – but as my fishing buddy filleted and the physician's assistant looked up recipes and I looked over my vast stock of beverages and assorted hors d'oeuvres makings, we realized we would nowhere have as much fun as right there in the house.

Elsewhere people I love dearly are gathering to play charades up on the hill, and farther away my brothers and sisters in Secularity are gathering at Mr. Wilson's house (i.e. the house used in the Dennis the Menace movie as Mr. Wilson's house) to drink scotch, smoke cigars, and play the ever-popular Crunch Beast Game in formal wear.

Myself, I'm probably the only person who will be "dressed up" for our fish fry, but I do so in honor of Secular Johnson and... I'll bring a bib.

Already this is the best New Year's Eve since last year's.

2001 has been a tough year on both a national and a personal scale for pretty much everyone I know. I don't know of anyone who will be sorry to see it pass. It was a boring year until it became a terrible year for us all – but at the same time, it's a year in which amazing new friends came into my life at least, old friendships deepened, and my love for the land all around me and the people has deepened. Surely I'm not the only one...

Here's hoping that all of you who read me have something lovely to look forward to this evening and next year.

(I'll be drinking my first toast at 11 p.m. Mountain Time so I can share it with Sec-J – and especially with Opera, who was the one who finally got it through my thick head last year that it was indeed Richard Strauss who composed Also Sprach Zarathrusta in time for us to find the CD and play that tune at midnight last year).

I wonder what we'll play at midnight tonight?

Probably St. Booty.

Friday, December 28, 2001


“I got some gumdrops!”
“I got a caramel apple!”
“I got chocolate!”
“I got a rock..”

- paraphrasing of typical trick-or-treat dialog in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

As the above quoted-from-less-than-perfect-memory passage from an old cartoon might indicate, not too many people out in the wide world would be too thrilled to receive a rock in their Halloween goodie bags, or, for that matter in their Christmas stockings or wrapped up as a gift under their Christmas trees.

But we in Saratoga do not live in the wide world. We live in Saratoga. And this Christmas, the hot gift, the most coveted keepsake, the most memorable mathom it was possible to exchange as a token of affection, friendship or just as a jolly good joke, was a rock.

To explain why, I suppose I should hearken back a few months to Halloween, when a new artist-about-town (with a little help from his new reprobate friends, the chamber director/town councilman and the town recreation director) set out to introduce himself in the valley by the most creative means at his disposal: selling custom-painted pumpkins to area businesses and individuals.

It was a merry trio indeed who took a spooky Friday afternoon off to wander about Saratoga hawking pumpkins and introducing the new artist. It is perhaps a pity said artist met the movers and shakers of Saratoga’s business community while in such company, but it can’t be helped now, and doesn’t seem to have done quite as much harm as was originally feared.

Quite the contrary; those pumpkins, decorated with business logos, expressive cartoons, caricatures or nature scenes as the customer requested, became something of a status symbol, coveted and much prized.

My own pumpkin, some two months later, still sits proudly in my office window, still sound, not stinking at all, and still proudly sporting the chamber’s logofish for all to see.

Foreshadowing? Certainly.

Less delicately decorated, less carefully kept pumpkins were scarcely rotting in pieces in the post-Halloween streets before our artist had planned out his next venture.

When first he came bursting into my office with the news, I thought he’d already lost his mind as he waved around his first rock, which he presented to me as a token of thanks for helping him launch himself in Saratoga.

But what a rock! I’m holding it now as I write (a few minutes’ interruption here, the artist himself came in for a chat, and he can’t know yet that I’m writing about him. He’ll see it soon enough. That’ll teach him to bug me about when I’m publishing next!). It’s small and smooth and dark, and on its flattest surface is an exquisite small painting of a brown trout. On the reverse is his signature along with a note that both the rock and the water used in the painting came from our very own beloved North Platte River.

Little did I know at the time that I was holding this year’s Hot Christmas Gift in my hand.

Word about these rocks spread quickly, and soon all sorts of people were engaging my friend to paint all sorts of things on them - elk, rams, deer, pets, scenery, and of course trout. Lots of trout.

My own dear personal mother started joking about rainbow rocks and brown rocks and brook rocks.

Then the subterfuge started.

My poor friend found himself engaged in just about every Christmas conspiracy going on in town (well, except for the primary one, about which more in another column - believe me, the traditional Christmas Passing of the Poultry is something worthy of an entire book and not just a column). As he busily painted rock after rock after rock, he had to be constantly on his guard in his downtown studio lest the intended recipient of one rock get an early peek at his present whilst ordering one for the giver, and so on.

At this time I have to express my personal admiration for this artist, into whose studio I tended to come crashing several times a day throughout the holiday season, plotting this, planning that, making suggestions, inviting him and his wife to parties, arranging fishing excursions... while he worked, in fits and starts, on my own fabulous Christmas present: a set of river rock bookends emblazoned with an authentic image of an Athenian warrior in battle dress, one celebrating the Odyssey and the other the Iliad.

I never saw it coming.

How many times did he have to duck and cover? How many times did he have to rush and hide his work over the last month? My ice fishing buddy, for whom I commissioned a rocky cartoon depicting him standing eagerly on the shore of an unfrozen lake, his auger and pole and jigs in hand, eyeing a thermometer reading 70 degrees under a blazing hot sun, exhorting the water to “freeze, come on, freeze!”, nearly saw his own gift several times in the course of a single week.

Before December was even half gone, our artist was feverishly at work nearly every time I saw him, all the while wondering when he was ever going to get his Christmas presents made – for he had planned long ago to bestow trout rocks on all of his family and friends this year.

But as each rock was completed, it was sold. The faster he churned them out, the faster they moved (and without, let me add, any decline in quality; his latest rocks are just as beautiful as mine).

Towards the end it became quite entertaining as he worked ever harder, scrambling for more rocks, more paint, more TIME!

At least the guy who invented Cabbage Patch Dolls wisely farmed them out to a big manufacturing firm before that craze hit.

But of course, were my friend to have done so, the whole point of the thing would be missed; these are unique, beautiful, hand-made things that celebrate a specific place and specific personalities, things that all of us who know him now, and certainly the many who will know him in the future, will treasure always both as tokens of our new artist friend and the people who seized on his work and gave it as gifts this holiday season.

My own father had two rocks in his stocking this Christmas, one from me decorated with a buffalo (my friend saw the buffalo in the rock before anyone asked him to paint it; the rock was shaped just so, and his eyes lit up when I told him what my dad would really like was a buffalo), and a rainbow rock as a gift from the artist himself.

I could almost hear his delighted laughter here in Saratoga as he pulled out his prizes in faraway Portland, where he was visiting my sister.

As for me, I still have a big, stupid grin on my face every time I look at my new bookends, which are like nothing else in the entire world and will certainly confuse archaeologists someday when I am long gone.

Yes, my artist friend is well-launched here in Saratoga, and is still filling orders for late gifts. He is discovering, though, that one should indeed be careful what he wishes for.

For the ice fishing derby is coming soon, and with it visitors, all of whom, I am sure, will want to take home a brookie rock.

Brace yourself, Kevin.

Thursday, December 20, 2001


(CAVEAT LECTOR: I tried really hard, but I wound up putting in some spoilers. But only people who know the books I'm talking about will understand any of this entry anyway, so I suppose I shouldn't worry my pretty little head about that too much)

I'm having trouble even getting started on this column, which of course is going to be about the new Lord of the Rings movie that premiered today (technically, looking at the clock, I should now say "yesterday" but it's still today to me, as it always is). I wanted to go to sleep and take up the subject tomorrow, but impressions, phrases, points continue to come over me and they will not let me sleep until they're down and shared in some fashion.

Uber-nerd that I am, of course I went to see this film today, the very first day it came out, even though doing so entailed an 80-mile round trip with an uncertain end, to wit, the movie theater in Rawlins has no advance ticket sales policy and no real way of dealing with a high-demand premiere like this (I remember, years ago, nearly getting shut out of the very first Batman movie there and winding up in the Picasso section, front row center, stuck craning my neck to watch a nearly cubist Joker nearly win the day).

Like many a Middle Earth maniac, like many a Dungeons and Dragons (or, in my mother's parlance, "Dragons and Dum-Dums") devotee, like many a silly sword and sorcery seeker, I've been waiting for this film pretty much my entire conscious life and damned if I was going to wait one more day, even if it snowed and blowed and ran me off the road.

With all of the advance reviews and publicity, and with my utter faith in director Peter Jackson (whose earlier "Heavenly Creatures" I love), and with my crowing delight at the casting of Viggo Mortensen (the devil in the first of those silly "Prophecy" movies) as the future king, I went pretty sure that I was going to enjoy the thing a lot – which certainty threatened my objectivity profoundly.

So, both in the interests of cross cultural exchange and of borrowing a Tolkien tabula rasa, I dragged along my ice fishing buddy (who drove into the bargain, knowing me too well and wisely suspecting that were transportation left to me we'd end up in a ditch somewhere as I channeled my inner Italian and tried to talk with my hands AND drive in my excitement). He is aware of the general plot and storyline from his own years as a talk jock (competitive speech and debate at the high school level is rife with, well, with younger versions of me) but has never read any of the books, not even The Hobbit, so he was my perfect foil; his reactions would gauge the movie qua movie while my own could be used solely to examine its relationship to the book.

It worked beautifully; we were still raving about the thing together 45 minutes after leaving the theater while we topped off the night with a pint of Murphy's Stout at a local pub (Guiness, alas, only now being available on tap in Encampment, and while on an ordinary night a mere 20 miles would never be permitted to stand between either of us and a proper pint, we'd already driven 80 and were jazzed to the eyeballs to boot).

Yup, he liked it, too, but that's not the extraordinary thing. The extraordinary thing, people, is that the pair of us loved for the most the same things about the film!

Oh, I got more into it than he did, of course. At times I became so absorbed that I forgot he was there, while he was at least at times able to take note of my competition for the title of Biggest Nerd in Saratoga (i.e. we weren't the only folks who made the journey for the premiere) (I won't say who else was there lest I blow their cover, natch).

What's so great about it?


Adaptations often suffer by comparison with their original sources because of the problem of translating imagination and making its appeal universal. Frequently readers of a book will complain about the movie because, e.g., actors chosen to play key characters didn't fit the reader's own very personal mental picture of what those characters looked like or sounded like or moved like. Key elements of a big novel might get left out in the interests of time or clarity or comprehensibility for the uninitiated (for instance, the Missionaria Protectiva has yet to be mentioned in any adaptation of DUNE, and my best friend's beloved power suits made nary an appearance in the film version of STARSHIP TROOPERS).

On the whole, I'm as guilty of such complaining as anyone, guys, I really am!

BUT... While there is next to nothing in this movie that really looks or sounds or acts the way I imagined it when first I read Tolkien's books at the tender age of eight or so, or when god-knows-how-many-timeseth I read it again about a month ago, THAT'S GREAT!

I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that with a book as deeply loved and deeply felt and vividly recalled as this one, it's actually pretty cool to see what someone else imagined while reading it.

Especially when that someone else, those someone elses, is/are as incredibly imaginative, fastidious and all-around brilliant as Peter Jackson, his production designers, his screenwriting team, and his cast, all of whom, I now suspect, had at least in purely visual and aesthetic terms a better vision of the world Tolkien created than I have had in all my years of loving and reading these books.

Yes, a bold and maybe a weird statement, but hear me out:

I first encountered this stuff in early elementary school. In second grade, I snuck into the older kids' viewing of the Rankin-Bass cartoon of The Hobbit – and, complain about what Rankin-Bass, and later Ralph Bakshi, did with these books in translating them to cel animation as some might, for every griping purist, animation snob or general sad sack, there is a person like me who used to be a kid whose entire world was opened to Tolkien and his ilk by exposure to these admittedly pretty crummy cartoons (though no one will ever convince me that John Huston was not a born Gandalf; it's still his voice I hear in my head when I read the wizard's dialog and I found myself superimposing it, if that would be the correct verb, on Ian McKellen's as I took in the movie. Had Huston still been alive, he would have been the ONLY choice for this role. End of story and if you disagree start your own double-damned blog).

I had devoured the whole mess, even the Silmarilion by the time I hit third or fourth grade. And I was in love.

But I've never been to England, see. And at the time of these first readings, I'd never seen much in the way of industrial blight or land laid waste. My Misty Mountains were the Snowy Range (and still are; they do very nicely in that imaginary role); my Great River Anduin the North Platte (and still is even now, though I've seen the Mississippi); Long Lake, Saratoga Lake. Weathertop looks a lot like Libby Flats in my head, and I've never been able to stop conflating Orthanc, Saruman's tower at Isengard, with the fire lookout station at Kennaday Peak.

And of course, the Shire was a lot like Saratoga, or later, places like Annandale-on-Hudson, New York or Montague, Massachusetts.

Intellectually I knew Tolkien had locales more familiar to HIM in mind - English villages and countryside (why else call the Hobbits' home the Shire?), Germany, etc. as he wrote. But in my mind's eye that's not what I saw. How could I?

But now, through Peter Jackson's movie, I feel I have seen a much better approximation of what Tolkien was trying to invoke. My mountains are beautiful and in the right situations quite forbidding, but there is no equivalent to the horror of Caradhras as depicted in the film. The North Platte makes for a great boat trip, and goes through some spectacular canyons while it's still very small, but it is not the majestic waterway J.R.R. had in mind. Orthanc is huge and dark and angular and not at all the friendly, austere quarters from which my friend Judi watches over the forest every summer (though because of this connection in my mind it was especially shocking to watch Orcs cutting down gorgeous deciduous trees the likes of which I only came to know while living in the northeast U.S. from the vantage point of the top of Orthanc in the film).

Oddly enough, Weathertop did look a lot like Libby Flats. But I digress as usual.

Another thing that makes this film truer than true to the original is what Jackson has done with the storyline. True, I'm as annoyed as anyone could be at the absence of Tom Bombadil – he was far and away my favorite character in Fellowship of the Ring, the one I wished I could know in real life, the one I admired and still seek to emulate, the one even today I love author Tom Robbins for in some way resembling – and the particularly cynical among us will doubtless needle the rest of us for weeks in a manner befitting the comic book salesman on the Simpsons for not boycotting the film because the characters of Arwen Undomiel and Glorfindel have been combined in what is obviously a ploy just to beef up the cheesecake factor. In a perfect world neither of these things would have happened, and Fatty Bolger and Bill Ferny would still be there to enjoy and non-readers would know the name of Galadriel's gigolo... but these are really petty quibbles in the face of what Jackson pulled off that Tolkien didn't – which really is one of the most triumphant transfers from one medium to another I've ever seen.

Think back, those of you who know the books well, to how much of the serious and foreboding, important action seems to take place outside the confines of the actual narrative. How much of the second book, The Two Towers, actually refers to things indirectly, as mere backstory, at the expense of a lot of excitement, emotion and impact?

I'm talking particularly about most of the Saruman backstory. From Gandalf's imprisonment in Orthanc to Saruman's breeding of the Uruk-Hai, his razing of the forest and his establishment of a rival Mordor in the realm of Isengard – all that takes place offstage, as it were, in the books. By the time any of our protagonist reach Isengard, it's all just an ugly fait accompli.

In the film, however, we get to see it and fear it properly as a beautiful forest that sports one elegant tower as its only sign of habitation is gradually transformed into an industrial hellpit. We even get an excursis from Saruman on how orcs came to be, something we only get in the appendices of the novels.

The novels would have been twice as long if Tolkien had tried to use this fine cinematic device, the cut between simultaneously occurring scenes, to any good effect in his books, especially when the real impact of the Saruman storyline is so very, very visual. Which is why Tolkien resorted to, for instance, Treebeard raging in The Two Towers about Saruman's destruction of the forest instead of trying to write a long, probably turgid description of that forest.

There is more that I could point out. Other critics have noticed the loving attention to detail and craft that have made even the brooches of Lothlorien – not even mentioned in dialogue, as the whole leave taking of Lorien is omitted from the film – something eye catching enough to make the seasoned Tolkien toker anticipate their importance in the upcoming sequel. The satisfaction of seeing Hugo Weaving – who has looked like he was born to play an elf in every film he's made from Priscilla Queen of the Desert to The Matrix – being the elf he should always have been. Sean Bean as Boromir, not given much screen time or dialogue, but still playing out that poor man's entire tragedy fully enough to allow even my ice fishing buddy to understand what the guy is going through.

I will end on one other note: this movie is deeply satisfying also because of its evocation of emotions that are only sort of there for the long-time Rings reader in the books. The books contain many declarative sentences indicating that the characters are grieving or fearful or puzzled.

The movie shows stricken Hobbits collapsing in tears in the snow outside Moria, handles the merely scary in the books in such a way that I'm pretty sure I'm going to have nightmares tonight.

Truly it's a marvel.

In Saratoga life, it's a rare movie that I dub an 80-mile movie. How many films are really worth the effort to get to Rawlins to see them, when soon they'll be available on video and soon after that, available used off of websites to own for a lower price than the initial movie ticket?

I'm going to have to call this movie about a 240-mile movie.

Good thing I had my car tuned up recently.

Friday, December 14, 2001


At a recent planning commission meeting, the old issue of house numbering came up again – or should I say the somewhat amusing lack thereof. It's been a while since this subject came up in a public meeting, but I wasn't surprised to hear about it.

This is because our brand shiny new police chief issued a warning/plea in one of his newspaper columns earlier this season asking would citizens please attend to this matter with all due haste and diligence so that his three brand shiny new police officers (not to mention the two more seasoned ones, whom I'm sure would be happy to be free of current, ahem, obstacles to finding which house's barking dog is the barking dog that prompted the 911 barking dog call du jour) can find their way around.

He – as does our zoning/streets Superman – backs up this plea with, of course, an ordinance of which most of us living here have been largely ignorant, Chapter 12 of Title 12 on Building Numbering, to wit:

12.12.101 - Conformance with provisions required. It is unlawful for any person to erect or maintain any house or building not numbered in conformity with this chapter.

The chapter then goes on to detail the numbering scheme adopted for Saratoga, in which the highway is the boundary between "East" and "West" X Street, and all numbers of buildings on the east or south side of the street shall bear odd numbers, and all on the west or north side shall bear even numbers.

OK, whatever. Never mind that I see west side houses with odd numbers and south side houses with even numbers. None of my biz!

As I look over the provisions of this tasty tidbit from the Saratoga Municipal Code (and I bet now all of you are wishing you had run for town council so you, too, could have a copy of the Code Saratogae handy whenever you have a burning desire to look up, e.g. the official definition of "alley" which is in use in Saratoga's legal documents!), I have to chuckle, because, sorry as I am to say it, our new chief and his three new cops are probably the only people in town who even care about house numbers, street addresses, what have you.

What about the post office, UPS, FedEx, out-of-towners may ask. Surely they need this vital information in order to function properly within the town, don't they?

Well, no.

Take our much-beloved UPSman. While he doesn't live here, he does pick up a fresh new copy of the local paper every Wednesday, dines here, occasionally hangs out here, and seems to possess a memory for names, faces and other relevant data that would make our much-beloved former U.S. Senator Al Simpson look like the poster boy for Alzheimer's Disease (Simpson hadn't seen me since I was about 14 years old and had a very different hair color, but at this year's annual convention of the Wyoming Press Convention, at which he was the keynote speaker, he caught me after the banquet and yelled from across the room "Hey Kate! How's your dad?").

Indeed, should I ever find myself unaware of to what job an acquaintance of mine might have switched, I need only ask UPSman. He knows our movements, our issues, our hopes, our up-to-the-minute whereabouts better than anyone!

For example - even this summer, when I switched jobs from the newspaper to the chamber of commerce, did I get the pleasure of sharing my news with him? NO! Before my very first day on my new job was over, I ran into him on the street and he said "Hey, Kate - congratulations on the new job! Hey, are you going to be in your office in about ten minutes? I've got a box for you."

Very nonchalantly said, too, I might add. Especially since I was utterly flabbergasted and sputtering.

He didn't even comment on the sputter; he's used to it.

There have been times when he – or the FedEx man – being unable to locate me, has left a package for me in my car. Or my mother's.

It's a good thing, too, because now as I think about it, I have no idea what my street address is. I know what street I live on, only because I'm a block west of the highway. But number? I'm stumped. And it's way too cold to pad outside in my bare feet and examine the front of my apartment to see. I think I live in C. But I'm not sure.

I'd wager that UPSman couldn't tell you either, though on occasion he's made deliveries to me there, too, just to keep me on my toes.

As for the U.S. mail, that too is irrelevant – we have a post office, and the social, intellectual and cultural life of the town would not be what it is without it.

My only issue with the post office is the complete and utter time vortex it poses whenever I'm foolish enough to go in there in the daytime. It's like an ongoing, permanent sewing circle without the sewing; a coffee klatch without the coffee. And it goes on all day long.

I do feel sorry for our new constabulary, though, as I do for all people who move here from bigger, more superficially organized cities. Direction-giving here fulfills every cliched expectation of the transplanted urbanite: when I send someone to the hot pool, I say, "Take a right at the old gas station that used to be a river guide but now has real estate signs out front and keep going down the highway until you get to the bottom of the hill. On your left is Brian's store. Take a left there, pass Uncle Dick's house and keep following that road to the dead end. You can't miss it."

Of course, by saying those four magic words "You can't miss it," I'm virtually guaranteeing that my befuddled visitor or newcomer will. And said visitor/newcomer will come back and demand a street address for the dang thing.

And I will send him to the police department, because they're the only ones who know or care.

Wednesday, December 12, 2001


I just received notification that one of the moderators at a site called somehow found this web page and liked what I have to say enough to recommend it as some of the best content on the web. Well!

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what people out in the wide world think of it. We can all take a look at what they have to say on Backwash's Discuss This Content message board.

Whattaya know?

More later... off soon to a meeting to plan the Platte Valley Festival of Birds, then choir practice. No rest for the wicked.

Monday, December 10, 2001


"I read a little book once about the top of the soil, just the first six inches under the grass, and everything that happens in it. If you have a ten-power microscope and if you take the time and care, you could spend all day every day for more than a year seeing and understanding all the things that are happening in just one square foot of topsoil. There are plants and animals and chemicals growing and changing all the time in a tiny world like that. There is a fungus which makes a noose with a trigger, and when small creatures come into it, bang!, the noose closes and catches them and the fungus eats the animals. There are eggs that hatch and insects that make certain scents to call other insects to love or to die and much more, so much more – all in one square foot of dirt. So how can anyone with eyes to see and a heart to question say he is bored, there is nothing to do?"

-- Theodore Sturgeon, Godbody, 1986

It is not news to anyone with even just a smattering of a scientific education that there are entire little worlds in a square of topsoil, on an inch of human skin or at the bottom of a lake. But isn't it nice to be reminded once in a while?

I didn't have a microscope with me Sunday when I hit Saratoga Lake for a bout of ice fishing, but I didn't need one. I got a show anyway, livening up considerably an outing that I still suspected, despite my fishing buddy's assurances to the contrary, would be a bit on the dull side.

I should have known better!

Now, I did a spot of ice fishing as a little girl when my grandfather (a native of Wisconsin) was still alive, and found it a pursuit best left to grandfathers. Being exposed on a frozen expanse of water, enduring the wind and my frozen hair whipping at my face, huddling and peering down a boring little hole in the ice and listening to Grandpa curse held small amusement.

And under those circumstances, it still would.

This time, however, I was in a hut, which in addition to shelter, warmth and privacy, transformed utterly the whole ice fishing thing forever.

In a dark hut the ice and the holes in it glow – my partner calls it the movie screen, and indeed the sight draws and holds the eye like a movie would even on pain of neck cricks and other discomforts. And in clear, clean water like we have in Saratoga Lake, even the very bottom (or at least the tops of the seaweed forest) is visible.

Between the hole and the weedtops there's a lot going on.

First, of course, there are the fish themselves, ostensible point of the entire exercise that they are, that coyly approach, start away from, flirt with, sample, and finally bite on the technicolor jig and bait rig one is working before them like a tiny marionette. To one who has grown up shore fishing or messing about with spinners alongside streams (we'll save my short and rather pitiful fly-fishing prowess for another entry) it's a brand new spectacle that might do for TV but is certainly never possible to see oneself! But there it is.

And there... as one bows over the holes in the ice and giggles at the partner's cursing of the propane heater (shades of Grandpa there)... the fish aren't the only movie stars. Tiny little water fleas, cilia spinning, dart around just under the water's surface. Minnows fart around in the seaweed and are fun to scare witless with the bait rig.

And water boatmen, surely among the cutest of the hemipterae with their big black eyes and furiously whirling feet whiz crazily by now and then. These bugs can stay underwater for incredibly long lengths of time because they dress themselves in a silvery suit of tiny air bubbles, I remember from my old textbooks, and indeed those swimming in my ice hole are silvery, though on a pin in my collection they are black.

Forgetting as I watch them swim that these bubbles can absorb oxygen from the water, I resolve to wait a bug out and see how long it would take before he comes up to the surface for air. My books tell me that boatmen take on air through little tubes on their shoulders but have never seen this actually happen. Chances should be good; where else in an ice-covered lake can a boatman surface but at my ice hole?

Alas, it's not to be. But that's OK because I see everything else. I become exhausted on the bugs' behalf as they fight their own buoyancy with powerful strokes of their oar-like back legs (I remember having to identify sub-species by counting the tarsi – foot segments – at the ends of these legs), struggling downward to where the food is. Their movements are jerky, with sudden bursts of speed and changes of direction that remind me of a friend's pair of Jack Russell terriers caroming around my office when they come to visit. I find myself laughing down into my ice hole as my fishing buddy laughs at me.

He's probably amused that I'm so fascinated by fish food, I think. And so he is, because he's done the same thing, watched boatmen and water striders and water scorpions. We have matching scars from trying to catch and play with predaceous diving beetles.

He has never forgotten what I'm just again remembering: No day is a dull day.

Next time I'm bringing popcorn (Should taste good with the schnapps!).

Oh, and for those who are interested: Yes, Saratoga Lake is fine for fishing, and the fishing – and catching – are pretty good. Go for it, if you've a mind to!

Thursday, December 06, 2001


I deliberately avoided a basketball game tonight, and it shouldn't surprise anyone why.

Tonight was Saratoga High's first home game, an event in and of itself, and everybody who was anybody and had some spare time and liked basketball and didn't have anything better to do or had children playing on the teams or in the band or in the concession stand was there (which is why the turn-out at Laura M's open house tonight was not what it should have been, but that's OK - more wine and gnosh for me).

But I was not.

It's just too hard, my friends, to take in games wherein my two favorite teams by far (and that's saying a lot since they're the only two basketball teams in the entire world about whose fates I care one whit, whose fortunes I follow, whose box scores I notice in the Casper-Star Trombone [as my esteemed former editor used to call it]). Saratoga was playing Encampment.

I almost used the first person plural there, but I had a tremendous and actually ridiculous argument with myself over which team I could honestly and soulfully refer to as "we," even though I am a graduate of only one of those schools.

But really – unless one's very own personal child is playing on one of the teams, how can anyone honestly choose between these two schools? Kids who live in Saratoga go to school in Encampment. Encampment schoolchildren's parents buy groceries, here, get their late-model cars fixed here, even rent post office boxes here because Encampment's tiny little postal station doesn't have enough boxes to support even the currently dwindling population there (I emphasize currently; whether one likes it or doesn't, whatever is going on up on Green Mountain is probably going to lead to a certain amount of growth in Encampment and Riverside... which will help more than it hurts, but that's a subject for another post).

Saratoga residents rent cross-country skis (if they have not yet made the step of buying them) from the father of one Encampment boys team starter and another frequent player. Encampment residents come to the medical clinic in Saratoga for treatment for their colds, their flus, their broken bones and entirely ordinary anthrax infections. If Saratoga residents want a good ol' ice cream soda between January and May, they have to hit the Sugar Bowl in Encampment. If Encampment residents need washers or PVC pipe or lumber or tractor parts, they probably have to hit either the hardware or the lumber store in Saratoga (or Walden, but let's assume that they all at least want their sales tax dollars to benefit the county and the state in which they live).

Just as in common parlance Wyoming is one small town with some very long streets, the Platte Valley is an even smaller town with only slightly shorter streets. Yes, there are three incorporated municipalities involved, yes, there are two schools (but both are in the same school district, subject to the decisions of the same school board, funded through the same funky formulae). But in the larger picture, from the perspective of the rest of the world, these nice distinctions are just that: nice distinctions that have no real bearing on the actual situation.

I won't even try to get into the familial connections between Saratoga, Encampment and Riverside, to say nothing of Walden. I'm not sure that computer software capable of meaningfully describing and diagramming those connections exists, not even in the bigass Mormon geneology database in Provo.

So how, meaningfully, can one pick a side at the Saratoga-Encampment basketball blowouts every year? Both sides comprise the children of dear friends, colleagues, business partners, annoying old bastards that one doesn't like much but one still has to treat well because of that one time he or she used the winch on his pickup to drag your daughter's car out of a snow drift.

Making matters "worse" is football season, when kids from both schools combine at both the middle school and high school level to form teams to take on much larger schools all over the state. At the middle school level especially this year, the Panthers would not have been the Panthers without the formidable efforts of something in the neighborhood of a dozen Encampment kids (some of whom are by far the smallest little gridsters I've ever seen, boys who made the team's diminutive quarterback look like Andre the Giant), who kept the quarterback from harm, caught his passes, and on the defensive side dragged down huge lumbering oafs from huge lumbering schools like Laramie and Rawlins! Try that while fielding a Saratoga-only or Encampment-only team!

Which is why I avoid the Saratoga-Encampment basketball contest altogether, and thank all the gods mankind has ever invented that the two teams play in altogether different leagues the rest of the season. There will be plenty of opportunties to cheer on the cross-country ski guru's two enormous and genial sons, as there will be to scream aloud when my banker's daughter nails another three-pointer.

So tonight, I made haste from speech practice (also a subject for a later post, assuredly) to Laura M's do, and later to the Wolf.

At the Wolf, just before I left, Saratoga's girls basketball coach showed up for a nightcap. Out of politeness, I asked him how his girls had done, though I didn't really want to know; his girls, who are my girls too, were playing my other girls (including one of the daughters of a good friend of mine who endures my pranks and prevarications in the Saratoga Community Choir even though she lives in Encampment). He told me that his girls won. I told him I was glad, though in truth I would have been happy either way.

As for the boys, nobody tell me, please. I will read about it in the Sun or the Daily Times or the Trombone in private, and keep my reactions to myself.

Wednesday, December 05, 2001


Sorry, folks. It's been two days now since I posted anything here, and while I've already indicated that Tuesdays are going to be a wash for publishing anyway what with council meetings at town hall and the Wolf, well, today was kind of a wash, too.

Let's just say I'm aiming for quality over quantity. Yeah. That sounds good.

Monday, December 03, 2001


The following comes from a article posted this evening as a follow up to an afternoon featuring endless iterations of a warning that our whiz-bang Director of Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, was going to issue a new alert (which warnings my friends at Secular Johnson quickly predicted were leading up to a highly vague alert from Ridge that had no specific information and would be blown way out of proportion. Damn, it's hell to be right sometimes):

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Citing the "quantity and level" of threats, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge announced Monday a new security alert, warning of the possibility of another terrorist attack within the United States.

"Be vigilant, be aware," Ridge said. He said there was no information on specific targets or dates, but the level of threats monitored by intelligence and law enforcement agencies had increased to the "threshold" point where the administration felt another warning was warranted.

"The decibel level was higher," Ridge said.

Vague doesn't even begin to cover it, does it? Really worth all the hype and promotion and attempts at inducing hysteria, wasn't it?

I'd laugh if I could be absolutely certain that no one out there took the pre-alert warnings and the alert itself overly seriously, but I can't. And as just by indicating as I have here that I personally do not take this alert terribly seriously, I have probably pissed some people off, I offer the following excerpts from the speech Ridge delivered after being sworn in to clarify why I feel this way (NOTE: For the full text, check out the transcript at National Review Online, and while you're there, check out pretty much any column by Victor Davis Hanson you can randomly click on; his is the best and the sanest perspective on our national predicament I can find, consistently wise, historically grounded, and realistic about human nature, warfare and other team sports):

"And we will operate from a few basic principles. First, candor. No one should be wary of coming forward when they see a problem. It's the only way to define a solution. The urgency of our task dictates candor about our challenges and confidence in our ability to solve them."

This sounds admirable, and at first glance could be seen to be nothing more than rhetoric about how he won't keep secrets from us (unless, presumably, it's for our own good), but look at that third sentence, "No one should be wary of coming forward when they see a problem."

Practically an invitation for every bored nihilist or crazed crackpot or conspiracy theorist to flood his office with "tips."

But he didn't say anything about the sources of his information or the ultimate veracity of the "intelligence" gathered. Just that there have been a lot of reports

"The decibel level is higher."

(Granted: later in the CNN story it is indicated that "U.S. intelligence sources said the threats came from members of the al Qaeda network against U.S. targets." But... um... how do we know these people were actually al Qaeda and not hoaxsters again? And if there's proof that they're not hoaxsters... why are they still loose to make threats? Why are you trying to scare me with these threats instead of just following up on them and nabbing the kooks making them, as you are so proud of having done in "December of 1999 [when] authorities in Jordan, Canada and the United States uncovered and prevented plans for a series of attacks related to the dawn of the millennium. Those plans were thwarted when intelligence learned about them and law enforcement arrested the suspected terrorists." Without, I might add, much in the way of hoopla or wannabe scary "alerts" like this one.)

Good grief. Crap like this makes me very glad that the television in my apartment is only hooked up to a VCR.

Confession time: I've been less than thrilled about this whole Homeland Security thang from the very start – even the name given the operation, "Homeland Security" sounds like something straight out of Philip K. Dick's most terrifying, paranoid riffs on the "Friends of the American People" – see the first few chapters of his posthumous masterpiece Radio Free Albemuth or the justly ominous-sounding Night Watch on Babylon 5.

When he issued an alert on Nov. 16 that nuclear weapons documents had been found in an Al Qaeda safehouse in Afghanistan, I was similarly annoyed by both his tone and that of the media coverage around it. It is 2001, people. Nuclear weapons documents are everywhere. A simple Google search I did just now turned up a pretty complete FAQ (acronym for Frequently Asked Questions) on nuclear weapons that, while it made my math-and-physics-impaired head hurt a bit, could well be more than enough information to allow anyone with a non-math-and-physics-impaired brain to wreak considerable havoc provided he or she had access to the right materials. And this is a perfectly legal, First Amendment protected document that simply compiles all of the open (i.e. not classified) literature on the topic.

I point this out not to alarm anyone (I'll leave that to Ridge, Christine Amapour and the like) but simply to point out that this particular genie is so out of the bottle that it's basically pointless to lose sleep over it.

And for all we know from the statements made by Ridge et alia, what was found in the safehouse might be nothing more than a print-out from this FAQ.

I'm ranting like this only because I hate the idea of anyone losing sleep over the kind of alerts and warnings issued by this utterly unnecessary new bureaucracy, folks.

Yes, bin Laden and his buddies are talking tough and scary right now - what do you expect; we've been bombing the Koran-misreading crap out of them. Their behavior and dark hints about greater power and more terrifying forces yet to be brought to bear against us isn't all that different from that of the kid knocked over on the playground making tremendous threats about what his eight foot tall, 500-pound bodybuilder dad is going to do to the bully who gave him a black eye.

Do yourselves a favor. Turn off your TV for a while and go play outside. It's perfect skiing weather, and there's plenty of snow on the ground. There's Christmas shopping to be done, and even Uncle Tom has encouraged Americans to show their patriotism, their faith in America by racking up credit card debt just like it was any old year. Don't go panicking just because Homeland Insecurity says something bad might happen to you.

It only increases the chances that something will.

P.S. For the record, I don't think too many of the people who read my weblog here are the type who are going to freak over anything any bureaucrat says (unless maybe it's Gale Norton). But you might know somebody who does, and maybe this rant can help with that. Or something.

P.P.S. Aren't you glad I got over my writer's block for the night?

P.P.P.S. If you disagree or want to remark on this or any of my posts, remember you can send comments to me at my e-mail address.

Good night!
Sorry, folks, but I have a bad case of writer's block tonight that neither the hot pool nor several cups of really good coffee has been able to cure. I'll keep trying, but you should probably just check back tomorrow.

Sunday, December 02, 2001


I love the smell of sulfur in the evening – evenings like this one, anyway.

My hometown has many characteristic smells to savor as one wanders through it at night: sawdust, woodsmoke, burning charcoal (even in the dead of winter this is present; true Saratogans do not let a few feet of snow prevent them from barbecuing a good steak of a Sunday evening),once I caught a strong whiff of fish off the river. But on an evening like this, the most comforting smell of all is of sulfur, a scent that clings to me even now as I type, despite a shower with a powerful peppermint soap and a vigorous towelling...

Tonight was not a classic winter's dip in our beloved Hobo Pool – while the wind tonight is gusty and cold, the air when still is well above freezing and so there is no opportunity to marvel at how quickly the droplets clinging to my eyebrows and lashes freeze even while the rest of my face and body is toasty warm. Indeed; it was warm enough tonight that I might otherwise have felt silly seeking out the hot pool, which I only really enjoy when it is really and truly cold out, when I can savor the shocking contrast between the air as I pull myself out of the water (as a visitor to the pool tonight observed as he heaved himself up onto the sides for a spell, there's only so long you can sit in hot water) and the water itself. It is important to stay out in the cold long enough for the body to re-adjust itself so one can re-create the all-over tingle of the first, quick immersion after a long chilly bike ride to the pool when one plunges back in.

No, the conditions for this best of all hot pool trips did not prevail, but I sought out the waters that can't cure smallpox anyway, because I knew they'd be good for me.

(By way of explanation for that, I'll just share with you one image that a carload of tourists seem to have found extremely shocking: me in a baggy pair of men's swimming trunks and a t-shirt, tooling around the Saratoga Inn golf course at a decent rate of speed. Oh, did I mention I was on cross-country skis?)

(Yes, I even ski in shorts, if I'm not too far from home and the weather is as pleasant as it was today)

I've been riding a bicycle instead of using my car all summer, so my first foray into winter sport for the season did not leave me quite as sore as it usually would, but feet and shoulders get little use on a bike and were loudly protesting the hard use they saw today by the time I was hauling my bones up the sidewalk past the municipal pool to the ever holy Hobo Pool.

As the sulfurous vapors enveloped me, however, even my screaming plantar fasciae (damaged last March as I was climbing around on rocks whose location my physician has forbidden me to divulge if I ever want medical care again in my lifetime) (OK, mild exaggeration; I'm sure she'd at least apply some ice to the black eye she would give me if I told) (OK, that was an exaggeration, too. She wouldn't risk her own highly trained and skilled hands clobbering me. She'd have her new physcian's assistant do it) calmed down and agreed that maybe everything would be all right for a while.

Off with the sweats as I greet the regulars and the tourists – tonight consisting of a German man and his son paddling around the water with masks and snorkels (why? why on earth?) and a few kids from UW. Stretch and smile and into the water as quickly as possible.

Thousands of little pins and needles attack my frozen extremities (the air isn't freezing, no, but the wind was strong and gusty and biting and all kinds of no-fun to pedal against – yes, on my bike. The ritual requires I use my bike, get nice and cold on the way there so I appreciate the heat all the more on arrival at the pool and again at home and I'm sure you have some funky hot pool-related rituals I would find comical as well, so phooey!) as I sink into the water. My eyes roll back in my head and I fumble around along the bottom with my fingers until I find my sitting rock. Then and only then do I lean back against the furry wall and take my true ease...

The fur on the wall is a constant source of anxiety for me now that this pool is my personal responsiblity. While the never-ending battle against the algae for which this water is the ideal, the only habitat, has always been in part mine to fight (I remember whole Saturdays when I was a child when, decked out in a bathing suit and stocking cap I lined up against the walls with other members of my Brownie troop scrubbing away at the stuff with a brush), now it is my own partner in crime (also known as our redoubtable recreation director, a.k.a. the "Minister of Fun") who has to monitor the water's chemistry and report it to the state, which in effect has very strict standards on how furry our walls may get lest these wonderful waters be deemed a public health hazard. And it is he, and, by extension, me (since there is in effect no recreation board in place for him to report to) who has to schedule and execute the modern day equivalent of Brownie Troop 381's scrubbing parties.

Said parties take much less time and real effort than those of yore, now that the pool can be drained with ease and that most remarkable of inventions, the pressure washer, is an indispensible tool in the fight against the fur. Now the procedure consists of putting a notice up that the pool will be closed on such-and-such a morning, draining the pool most of the way, and firing up those pressure washers (the town has one which is mighty impressive as it blasts away at the algae, knocking it right off the wall like the water pik of the gods, yes, impressive indeed, until a local painting contractor and hot pool fan shows up with the water pik of the Titans, surely Prometheus' follow-up gift bestowed right after fire, so powerful it makes a the town's washer look like something I would use to fill a bird bath). The algae comes off in satisfying stripes, a Calvinist triumph, like painting in reverse... and then one looks down into what is left of the Hobo pool's waters, turgid and green with algae corpses that don't realize they've been defeated. No problem, though – just turn on an ordinary garden hose and gently persuade them all to head for the drain and out they go!

All this early in the morning, just as the sun is rising. By the time the sun is all the way up, the job is nearly done and the pool is clean. Did someone plan it that way, this marvelous effect? It makes of the cleaning project an almost pagan ritual; we toil and scrub so the first rays of the sun that reach the water may shine on a Hobo Pool renewed...

So while the ever-thickening fur on the wall feels a little funky, still I welcome the sliminess for the reminder it delivers about the requirements and rewards of stewardship. Because a few volunteers do a few hours of work a few mornings a year, we all have this amazing thing to enjoy.

And enjoy I - lots of us - do: All who drain and scrub and spray, all who soak and splash and play, all can make the same observation: You know you're in a special place when the scent of heaven is the smell of brimstone.

Saturday, December 01, 2001


Ever have one of those experiences that cause you, belatedly, to realize that absolutely every aspect of your understanding of something has been wrong, wrong, wrong?

I've just taken in my first high school basketball of the season, and as I watched a good four hours or so of ball-bouncin' fun, I noticed certain, shall we say... inaccuracies in my general apprehension of the workings of the game, its aims and procedures and ultimate goals.

I have also, at 31 contracted my first real case of bleacher butt.

Many who know me will probably be surprised, if not flabbergasted, if not wildly skeptical about my claim to bleacher butt immunity for 31 years. After all, over the last two years there was hardly a Saratoga or Encampment junior high or high school basketball competition at which I wasn't present.

Well... Even at the height of my sports reporting career, I actually spent next to no time on the bleachers. Instead I was the only pin in an eternal game of photographer bowling, in which ten burly young men or reedy young women or flailing youths attempted every 40 seconds or so to knock me on my arse under the guise of trying to put a big rubber ball through a metal hoop hanging ominously over my head.

The rules went something like this: Maximum points and prestige to the player or players who actually physcially clobbered me, knocked me over, made me drop my camera or in some other way caused physical or economic trauma to my person. Less desirable but still admirable was success in causing me to jump, shreik or haul ass out of the way, either by nearly missing me with a limb or fingernail or by launching the ball in my direction, in which cases the trauma was purely psychological as I knelt powerless with a camera pressed to my face, watching the sharpness of detail in my view of the ball's pebbled surface rapidly increase until my muscles unfroze and I ducked or leapt out of the way.

Howls of laughter all around in such events, because objects in the lens are not as close as they appear - I was essentially dodging hallucinations.

Wisely, I put my photographer bowling pin career behind me before I suffered permanent damage. While the months of PB season served to keep my joints limber and my muscles toned, not to mention maintaining my astonishing alertness, hanging up my camera has vastly reduced the stress in my life.

There's an amusing coda to my career change, however, because now when I go to games I sit in the stands with everybody else - and find the game transformed!

First of all, those kids really are trying to put that ball through the hoop. I realize this now because I noticed today that they keep charging up and down what I now know is called the "court" (and not, as I thought, the "alley") whether or not there is a photographer waiting under said hoop.

And all that flailing of limb which I had for two years been interpreting as merely amusing attempts at freestyle action to liven up what would otherwise devolve into just a series of relentless charges? They're just trying to get the ball away from each other.

And all those times when the guys in stripes blow the whistle and make everything stop? It's not to allow the photographer to get up and stretch and enjoy a few moments blissfully free of attack. It's because one of the kids whacked one of the other kids while trying to hard to get the ball! And the whacker is punished and, get this, the whackee gets to take a special shot at putting the ball through the hoop while everyone else stands around and watches.

(Me, I had thought these so-called "free throws" were just an extra psychological tool to keep the photographer/target unsettled and make him or her cringe in anticipation of an especially powerful and well-aimed blow!).

I've noticed another thing, too, as I learn a new way to interpret these basketball games (and the name makes so much more sense now, especially after I've discovered that hoop is called a "basket!"). It's much harder for me to anticipate the players' moves from the stands, because I can't see their faces!

Before, I could always tell when I could expect a body blow or an embarrassing near miss by the look in a player's eye and his or her subtle, largely unconscious movements of finger, foot, shoulder... Having watched the same 20 or so children engaging in this sport for over two years, and always from up close and from the mindset that I was a participant in and not just a spectator of the action, I have learned, largely unconsciously, to read these signals, to anticipate which side of the "court" towards which a particular player tends to drift, to see in a particular player's wide eyes and gaping mouth and his arm position (reminiscent, so often, of that of a perfect swan dive) my own immediate future as a grease spot against the wall.

Yes, it's a different game now - but not as exciting, I'm sorry to say. No longer feeling that special, personal threat to life and limb that once I took for granted, I find my attention wanders a bit. There are infants and toddlers in the bleachers, for instance, and for a certain female contingent of the crowd the alternate sport of baby passing seems to be more important than watching the movements of the ball. There is also a great deal of gossip to be exchanged, plans to be made, colorful insults to be hurled at the men in stripes whom I still catch myself regarding as my personal protectors, and a great deal of shouting and clapping just in general.

Perhaps I'm not the sports fan I thought I was, but I have to confess I do find all of this a lot more interesting than what's going on down on the "court." Am I alone in thinking so?

I kind of doubt it.

I always knew there had to be a better reason for all of those people to come to these things than just the fun of watching me go splat! Why else endure the pangs of bleacher butt, if this is what they are like (though I have to say, alliteratively amusing though the term might be, "bleacher butt" is a misnomer; my butt is fine, but my hip joints and leg and back muscles are still objecting strongly to the four or so hours of rigid inactivity through which I put them in the name of spectatorship.)

"Basketball" fans are not as mean-spirited and bloodthirsty as I had been thinking, it would seem.

I wonder what else I've been wrong about.

Friday, November 30, 2001

(Drat it, I swear the first iteration of this was better, but my wine-palsied hands muffed the crucial "publish" click and the text disappeared into oblivion. This is a reconstruction of what I wrote before. You'll see soon why it matters to me that this catastrophe occurred this time!)


It has been another heavy-duty day, so I'm going to cop out again and rely mostly on a passage from someone else's book as a peg from which to hang tonight's essay. These lines come from Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva OR The Bomb Party, and are lines that have dwelt in my head for coming on 16 years, lines that resonated with me long before my personal experience had given me any real reason to empathize so with the narrator's plight. Perhaps it was a form of foreshadowing:

"But how does one convey happiness? Unhappiness we can so easily describe – I was unhappy, we say, because... We remember this and that, giving good reasons, but happiness is like one of those islands far out in the Pacific which has been reported by sailors when it emerges from the haze where no cartographer has ever marked it. The island disappears again for a generation, but no navigator can be quite certain that it only existed in the imagination of some long-dead lookout."

On the surface this looks like just an ordinary writer's problem: it is much easier to describe what is wrong than what is right. How much of the extant body of lyric poetry focuses on the author's bliss, contentment, fulfillment of wishes, versus what expresses his dejection, loss or melancholy?

The narrator here, though, has gained a particular appreciation for the happiness he once knew because it has been unexpectedly and brutally taken from him, and he is left with only parodic reminders of it. At the time he here describes in hindsight he was taking for granted the prospect of years together with his new, young, remarkable, grave and beautiful wife. But it wasn't to be. What seemed a mere prologue turned out to be the whole story for the pair of them.

That kind of happiness, which this man only discovered after the fact, is something that only can be discovered after the fact. Only after the events of it have been fixed in time can they be appreciated, can their beauty be savored (as in a related vein James Hillman once observed "You are never really married until you are divorced"). Once the experience can be pinned to the board like a butterfly, its every aspect, including those previously overlooked, can be examined in detail.

Not that this is the only kind of happiness. There are plenty of happy marriages, happy careers, happy progresses towards a goal. But this kind is both rare and wonderful... and crippling and poisonous, for it can easily keep the sailor standing ever at the prow of his ship, looking backwards, hoping for another glimpse of an island that has been rendered by memory and fantasy as a Platonic perfection that can never really be. His voyage may take him past other, perhaps even better, islands, but they pass by unnoticed because he's still watching for that one.

I have been such a sailor. Such happiness as described here has been mine, and it is gone with the person who made it possible. I had thought that I had gotten over this loss long ago, but tonight I realized that I've been standing there in the prow of the ship for too many years. I have let one moment define my entire subsequent life – which is madness.

Time to move toward the stern and start looking in a new direction. That island is lost to me, but it's not the only island.

How much easier it is to realize this when there is someone close at hand who has made the mighty effort to look in that new direction, and has found another island. How much better it is to find that someone one has known his entire life understands why it is a mighty effort and can explain why it is worth making.

That person will read this soon and may cry again as we both cried tonight, realizing we both have known this same happiness, which only assumes its full importance for being lost. But the tears shed this time will, I hope, be easier to bear for his knowing that I have let go my hold on the rail of the stern – and that it is because of him that I noticed I still had a white-knuckled grip on that rail.

And so to him I have to say:

Thank you.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


I just spent most of this evening enjoying beer and conversation over at Hughes Manufacturing and amidst the talk of family and small town life and the hard facts of doing business in what is economically a somewhat backward part of the world, I was hit by a revelation of the cosmic, if not the divine.

(Of course, maybe I just need to lay off Reuchlin and Eco for a while, but...)

My host preoccupied for a moment, I took a good, long look at my surroundings. The company is in the midst of assembling an array of small but complex products, and the components thereof are everywhere in the shop.

What I was looking at was wood in various stages of being turned into objects that will be on display for years to come. Over there, stacks and stacks of dowels waiting to be put to use. Over there, boards cut to size and ready for the computer numerical control router and customization. A little behind those, boards and dowels partially assembled into the finished product.

Across the street from the shop, I could hear the sounds, smell the odors of a sawmill cranking out lumber.

Looking at all of that wood, how can one not take a moment and think of trees? Pick up even the most useless scrap and at least a part of a tree's life story is there to be read if one has eyes to see it. The grain of the wood, the patterns that make it beautiful and desirable, those inimitable bands of light and dark, are growth rings from when that scrap of wood was as alive as I am.

I do not mourn the implied loss of life, however. The wood in my hand was once alive, yes - but so were bits of the concrete that made up the floor upon which I stood, the natural gas which, burned, was keeping me warm, the thread of the fabric of which my shirt and pants were made.

The wood had simply been more recently alive, and was simply closer to its raw, natural state.

At bottom, that's what life is - the conversion of the currently inanimate into the animate. Just now I have ingested dead matter in the form of a turkey burger - another mass of once-living matter rendered still and cold and turned to uses other than its own temporary turkey nature - and my body is busy making that turkey burger into a part of me. So too the trees that became the wood I held in my hands at the shop.

Particles from near and far were captured by a tree to make that scap of wood. There might be ash from Mount St. Helens mixed with silica from a sandy beach in the Phillipines mixed with carbon atoms that once comprised the body of a Tyrannosaur, broken down and remade into a piece of wood that will in turn house the ashes of a human being I will never meet, but who will be sufficiently missed and mourned by others that those ashes go into an urn made by my friend.

And my friend has removed this matter from nature for a while. Because he has made it into an urn (or a boomerang, or a keychain, or a gun cabinet) it will retain its nature as wood, its structural integrity, for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Left in the wild, on the other hand, the original tree would in no time become insect and fungus food, would decompose, would rot until there was no sign left that ever there had been a tree there.

The lesson I get from this is that the actual conservative, preservative angle on, e.g. whether to harvest a tree or leave it alone lies with yonder sawmill and the work of people like those at Hughes Manufacturing.

As humans, we respect form and substance in a way that nature does not and never can. It is nature, not us, who really regards the all as simply raw material for making something new.

The stone that comprises the Venus de Milo - what would it be now had not some unknown Greek sculptor long ago ripped the stone from its natural environment, brutally chipped away all bits of it that did not look like Venus, and put it on a pedestal to last for the ages?

That stone would be gravel by now, dust, blowing through Greece or through the streets of Saratoga, as the poor lady's arms already are. Nature is brutal and merciless, grinding away at forms and shapes and lives, large and small, without heed for what they are or were or could be. Even the urn built or the sculpture carved tomorrow has but numbered days. Sooner or later, Venus will be dust. Sooner or later, the urn will be indistinguishable from its contents.

This at bottom is why the environmental movement amuses me. Return, return, return, they cry. Undo! Remake the world into what it was before horrible, horrible humanity started messing with its processes, poisoning it, killing off its diversity, imposing the will of man upon the all.

News flash: the all doesn't give a fig what we do. The all will continue as it always has. If we did somehow manage to undo what our species - only one species among so many, so many we don't even have a number high enough to count them all - has done in our short time on this planet, what, really, would we have changed? Would species stop going extinct? That would be a change! Just ask the trilobites - oh wait, you can't; they went extinct long before there was anything around capable of giving them a name.

Would air quality stop changing? Would riverbanks and seashores stop eroding away?


(And who builds ripraps on riverbanks to preserve our good boat launch sites? We do!)

I guess maybe in a way I have to admire the environmental movement for this one remarkable quality: they have a much higher estimate of the innate power and capacity of the human race than I do. They think us more powerful than the gods themselves, than nature, than (insert your preferred term or name here). They think us capable of completely undoing the hard work of the creator, or whatever.

But then my admiration dies, because, um, we're a product of that creator too, whatever it is. We're here, subject to the same laws of physics, death and taxes as everything else that has ever lived here. So, if whatever-it-is made us, it must either be because we are really just another funky species of no greater import than, say, the smallpox virus or the tiger mosquito or the mule deer, or because whatever-it-is wanted to be able to tear down this little sandcastle of (its? his? hers?) someday, and we were the handy means of doing so.

(I take the extremist view of our apparent role in the ecosphere in saying this last bit, just to be an ass)

The barley and hops that were brutally slaughtered to make the beer I am about to evacuate from my system no more died in vain than did the trees whose bones were stacked up on the work benches in my friend's shop. Sooner or later, they'll get their revenge.

Maybe someday I'll be a mosquito and they the highly evolved Superman who slaps me into oblivion for daring to try to steal a sip of blood.

And the wood stacked on my friend's workbench was once a tall and slender pine among many tall and slender pines crammed into a forest, but now it has been singled out to become unique, to be displayed, treasured, praised for many years to come.

Not a bad trade-off, in my book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001


I don't entirely believe in the concept of karma, but because I do like to hedge my bets, I will never, ever be a conductor, music teacher or theater director of any kind.

I would be facing an unbelievable shitstorm of divine and other retribution if I did.

I am a career musical screwball, and said career continues apace.

I feel for the director of the Saratoga Community Choir; I really do. He's a lovely and a remarkable man, one whom we have been lucky to have in this town for all of these years. Once a professional musician - he played trombone in the Denver Symphony Orchestra for many years - he left the glamor and the glory of getting to play classical low brass (lots of interminable low notes in sequence, stupefying, unvarying pitches and rhythms, rests on the order of 40 measures long, plus the occasional chance to play something heavy and scary like Prokofiev's wolf motif) to become a teacher. And it is in that context that his paths and mine first crossed.

He was already seasoned and savvy by the time I reached the fourth grade and joined the band, so he knew what to expect from trombone players: lots of misbehaving. It's practically universal, as I discovered years later when I first read the account of the dubious bombardon duo of Annibale Cantalamessa and Pio Bo in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

Anyway, I always suspected that this was why he so often made a point of encouraging girls to take up the trombone, believing that at least they wouldn't misbehave as much.

In my case, he was right... for three years.

Once I hit middle school, however, things were different. After sixth grade, we no longer just played as the class of 1988. After sixth grade, we seventh graders joined forces with the eighth grade. And monsters were born.

One of two mischevious twins was in the class ahead of me and played trombone. His best friend played baritone. And they made the most of all of the free, unstructured time granted to those with stupidly easy parts in the increasingly complex compositions our fearless instructor was giving us to play.

While our teacher busied himself with getting all 15 of the clarinets to play their funky syncopated parts in unison, we who had perhaps seven different notes in challenging arrangements of wholes and halves to tackle were pretty much at liberty.

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned to make a spitball. Guess who taught me.

Oh, the sight in my mind's eye of a good sized, well moistened gob of paper tracing a parabolic arc across the back of that room and disappearing down the bell of the sousaphone still brings mist to my eyes to this very day!

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned that taking one's trombone home to actually practice on it was for dorks. Guess who taught me.

I could have used that big long trombone case to defend myself from the assorted bullies who lined the route home from school, although it would have been an expensive bludgeon.

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned how much fun it is to just completely screw off through a whole hour of class. Guess who taught me.

And we got away with it, got away with it all. Drawing intriciate patterns on the backs of sweaters with precisely aimed streams of slide oil, emptying overwhelmingly full spit valves onto trumpet players' shoes while they were toiling away at the melody of "On Broadway," trying to convince the worst flute player in school history to challenge for first chair... We got away with it all.

To this day I don't know if this was because our teacher was distracted or because he had a soft spot in his heart for trombone players. Perhaps it was both. Certainly I no longer think, as I did then, that he just didn't notice what was going on.

That's because our paths have crossed again, my old band teacher and I. He's the choir director, and I'm in the tenor section - and while I've been out of high school for over a dozen years now, and he's been retired for almost that long, the second I step into the fellowship hall at the Presbyterian Church on Wednesday nights, the years fall away.

I don't have slide oil or spit valves and there's none of this first chair nonsense... but I do now have two other generations of old trombone players with whom to make mischief, and the only tenor in the choir who isn't an ex-'bone player (and the only other female tenor) is something of an absurdist as well.

While our much-respected and appreciated (really!) director fusses with the sopranos and the altos, who have some pretty formidable parts, high notes, odd rhythms, challenges galore - all that and many more singers to coordinate, we the tenors... act like trombone players.

Even though we're all in government somehow - there's a planning commission member, a joint powers board member (who has served quite a lot of time as a school board member, too) and me - and have all of us shouldered serious responsibilities and spend more time in wrist-slittingly dull meetings than any of us would like, we... well...

I have threatened to get us all commemorative propeller beanies.

It's just so NICE to have something like this to do! Singing is fun in and of itself of course, but what's really wonderful about this is that... that...

None of us is in charge!

Others pick the music, acquire it, distribute it. Our director runs rehearsals. Our accompanist covers up all of our flubs because she's also quite a pro.

We're just necks.

It's glorious.

Not that our choir director doesn't get his licks in on us from time to time. He does - especially on me, whom he has known since I was ten years old and yes, he was onto me the whole time, as he occasionally shares with the rest of the choir.

So when my friends and I start screwing around and shoving each other and trying to make each other blow our parts and mocking the sopranos sitting in front of us, our director, my old teacher, just sort of looks at us and smiles. Most of the time.

He knows we'll shape up come performance time, as we did at the community Thanksgiving service when we sang, with about two weeks' rehearsal, a little-known hymn written to the tune of Sibelius' "Finlandia" (ugh!) and did it quite nicely.

But he must at times wish we'd just shut up back there.

So you see, if ever I were to take on such a job, I'm sure I would fall victim to something very like the well-known parents' curse.

I see it once a week in my old band teacher's face. Deep in his heart, he is hoping that someday I'll be running a choir, and I'll get a tenor section that acts just like I did.

Monday, November 26, 2001


I've been promising this for a week, so now I'm delivering. Here's my take on the current Business License Teapot Tempest.

The whole deal on business licenses started this last summer when our zoning officer/streets supervisor/all-around Superman (as our town attorney named him upon his hire) brought up an obscure ordinance in a meeting as part of his on-going quest to do his job effectively.

He and his staff have been continually vexed by out-of-town paving contractors who go door-to-door and arrange with individual homeowners to pave their driveways, and who pay little or no attention to the structure and nature of Saratoga's streets, their drainage systems and composition. Superman had been seeking a way to extract some form of compensation from such contractors as a way of recovering a part of the costs of having his crew watching for them and dealing with their aftermath.

Lo and behold, for perhaps the first time in 20 years, Chapter 4 of Title 5 of the Saratoga Municipal Code got a hearing in council.

He wanted to use this little-known and rarely (if ever)-enforced Chapter to govern out-of-town paving and siding contractors and suchlike. Simple enough. But it's opened a funky little can of worms, for Chapter 4 has unfortunately proven very easy to misinterpret.

Bear with me through a little philology, please. I'll make it worth your while.

Chapter 4 governs "Business Licenses Generally" and covers everything from the application process to procedures for changing locations to grounds for suspension or revocation of licenses. Simple enough, right? I wish!

The very first section, 5.04.010 - Applicability has caused the biggest problems so far. I will quote from it directly:

"This title shall govern every business license in the town, except as otherwise provided by this code or other ordinances of the town under which such business is licensed."

The important phrase here is "every business license in town." Please note that it does not say "every business in town." Every business license.

A further bit which is not in itself problematic but has nonetheless caused problems (largely through sloppy reading of the bit I just quoted) appears in the very next section, 5.04.020 - Definitions.

"'Business' means any business, trade, occupation, profession, avocation or calling of any kind, subject by the provisions of this title to a license or tax."

We'll ignore the tautology for a moment - "business means any business" and I will instead call attention to the phrase "subject by the provisions of this title to a license or tax." That's the tricky phrase. To me, and to many thinking people who have been paying attention to this (OK, cranky time, I probably shouldn't use the term "many" to quantify these people, but I keep hoping that more of you will start paying attention to this issue before it's too late), this phrase clearly limits the whole business license issue to, oh my goodness, BUSINESSES SUBJECT TO THE PROVISIONS OF THIS TITLE TO A LICENSE OR TAX.

Not, in other words, every business in Saratoga, as several of my colleagues on the council and our town attorney, seem to believe is indicated here. Just the ones subject in the terms of the title to a license or tax.

What businesses are explicitly subject to a license or tax in Title 5, you may ask? Well, there's a list right handy at the beginning of Title 5. It includes businesses selling alcoholic beverages (Chapter 8), circuses and exhibitions (Chapter 12), peddlers and solicitors (Chapter 16 - better known throughout the state as the "Green River Ordinance, about which more anon), pool and billiard halls (Chapter 20), pawnbrokers (Chapter 24), and cable television franchises (Chapter 28).

So far, as we look over Title 5, there isn't much here that indicates there was an intent behind this thing to require everyone doing business in Saratoga to have a license. The actual language focuses very precisely on people selling alcohol (per state law), travelling exhibitions and salesmen, cable TV franchising, and businesses that don't even exist here at present like pool halls and pawnbrokers.

Where it does get thorny (for those who aren't reading closely, anyway) is in 5.04.040, which reads:

"It is unlawful for any person or his agent to engage in or carry on a business in the town for which there is required a license without first having paid the required license tax and obtained the license."

Lots of people have interpreted this to mean, again, that everyone doing business in Saratoga needs a license. But again, pay attention to the devil in the details - there are these all-important modifying phrases like "in which there is required a license."

If the intent of my predecessors who framed this law were to make it apply to everyone doing business in Saratoga, the law should have read simply: "It is unlawful for any person or his agent to engage in or carry on a business in the town without first having paid the required license tax and obtained the license."

But that's not what it says, is it?

Folks, the law is, at bottom, nothing more than a matter of language carefully and effectively deployed. And in this case it has been. Those modifying, limiting phrases matter.

However, I'm the only one on the council, though, who seems to believe this, with the possible exception of the mayor, for whom I will not speak. He can get his own webpage. But I digress, as usual. My point is, I'm outnumbered at present, which puts Saratoga businesses in a certain amount of danger (unless, after losing this battle, I prevail in my backup campaign to set the business license fee at $0) of getting bled just a little more, of having to do a little more paperwork, and of having to pay some more hidden costs for processing, filing and preservation of this paperwork - EVEN THOUGH THE LAW DOESN'T SAY THEY HAVE TO.

Personally, I'd rather we just left this alone, since the law doesn't mean what certain people think it means, and I'm pretty damned confident that mine is the interpretation of same that would hold up in a court challenge (especially now that I've shared it with all of you. Ain't I a stinker?).

But it doesn't look like I'm going to get my way 100%, so I am currently concentrating on just getting rid of Chapter 4, or, barring that, setting the license fee at $0. Businesses would still be expected to complete some paperwork and there would be hidden costs for us all to absorb for the administration of these licenses, but at least we'd not be socking existing or new or prospective businesses with any more direct financial hits.

A better way to address our zoning/streets Superman's (remember him?) original concern would be adding language to 5.16 (Green River Ordinance) making it explicitly clear that we consider out-of-town pavers and contractors and siding salesmen to be peddlers and solicitors who will be regulated as per the Green River Ordinance.

Currently there is no definition of a peddler or solicitor in place in the municipal code anyway that I can find. So we write one, making sure it's tight and clear (language clearly and effectively deployed) and covers even paving and siding contractors.

Slam dunk.

So - who's going to run for council in 2002?

Sunday, November 25, 2001


I’ve just returned from a midnight walk through this little town, and none of you were there - which was part of the charm of this exercise. How often do any of us get to walk unguessed through these too-familiar streets and see them transformed, disguised and silent? I was reminded of certain Christmas carols and saw anew how a night could indeed be holy. And I was reminded of bits of Walt Whitman, that funky voyeur, wandering at night but not in my vision... “Pausing and gazing and bending and stopping.”

Like Whitman I peeked a little at you all, but found you all closed up tight, lights out, motionless, the snow in your yards and driveways undisturbed by tire tracks or footprints, the air around you untroubled by sound. I gesticulated as I passed your houses and bid you sweet dreams.

I stopped at the intersection of First and Bridge and stood there for a while, right in the middle. No cars passed me, no people, not even a stray dog. I looked in all directions, then straight up above me, Foucault’s pendulum for a moment, hung from the only fixed point in the universe, the dimensionless point around which all of creation revolves.

Then I chided myself for getting too wrapped up in what I’d been reading again and kept walking. My goal was the bridge, the river; I wanted to see the ice trying to form on its surface and the way the snow picks out the shapes of the dormant plants on the banks and of the rocks. The sluggish flow of the chilled but not freezing water would be the only sound I would hear...

I was wrong about that, of course. Somehow I’d managed to forget our special tenants, whom we feed behind Pizza Hut and by Bubba’s all year so they’ll stick around, and who agree to stay because the hot springs along the river keep their habitat liquid: the ducks.

I had forgotten they would be there, and so got quite a scare when I looked down and saw so many of the rocks moving. That’s what they looked like: rocks lined with snow, neatly arranged along the edges of the ice. Until they moved and quacked.

One duck, swimming off by herself away from the huddled others, paddled upstream to where the gap in the ice ended, hopped out onto the ice, waddled a few feet, then thought better of it and rejoined her fellows. I wondered what she had been looking for.

I stared out a while towards the point where the river and its banks seemed to disappear into a cloud. Elements merge in the night, I thought, quoting Whitman again. Not my favorite poet, flaky Walt, but even the most annoying of poets gets it right occasionally. The snow has made everything come together, covered the dirt, the pavement, the rails of the bridge, the last leaves clinging to the trees, the windowsills and rooftops of the houses, my hair and eyelashes, the ice on the water. Elements merge in the night - especially in winter.

Tomorrow we’ll track up this snow (“Who’s been getting footie-prints in my nice clean snow?” my dad would demand when he’d get home from work after my sister and I had made a day of playing in the yard. Our Wyoming snow makes for poor snowmen, but great snow angels, after a fashion) and many of us will curse it as we shovel our walks, clean off our cars. Those merchants with stores on the north side of Bridge Street will cast envious eyes at those on the south in the morning, for I have verified it this evening: the heated sidewalks work. A neat, dark canyon in the snow marks out the sidewalk past Shively’s and Second Impressions, past Lollypop’s and the Wolf, disappears into the street and resumes near the old gas station that is soon to be another real estate office, continuing up past Hat Creek to the Donut Ranch, the Chamber, Napa.

Across the street from me, Marty will have to dig his way into his studio tomorrow; I will simply have to brush some snow off the bench I stand on to put out the Chamber’s flag in the morning. Will he be jealous? Maybe not if I offer him coffee.

But why look forward to the morning when this night is so lovely? Finally a bit chilled, I head back for my little apartment. I’ve already shoveled the walk in front of it once, as has my neighbor. It needs it again, but I ignore it for now, with this essay running round my brain. I’m on a mission now, and pause only to admire the splat of snow still clinging to the screen of my living room window from when, hours earlier, my neighbor tried to startle me with a well-flung snowball. He succeeded. I jumped. He laughed.

He’ll get his later on. Revenge is a dish best served snowy-cold. Maybe I’ll bury his car when I shovel the walks again in a while.

Now I’ll have to hope he doesn’t read this, or he’ll know it was me that did it. Shh! Don’t tell him; let him blame the snowplows in the morning.

Happy winter, everyone!

I don't have much to relate tonight - or rather, this morning; it's just past 1 a.m. Sunday right now - as I spent most of today just watching videos and drinking coffee, so I'll instead share the best single bit of advice I've ever received. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised that it's from a book. Those who know me exceedingly well will not be surprised that it's from the original stoic philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius.

(Note to pop culture fans: Marcus Aurelius is the old emperor in the movie "Gladiator" who is depicted in the film as having been murdered by his son Commodus. Further note: Commodus was not, in fact, killed in the Colloseum as depicted in that film. He was murdered some 13 years later. But I digress, as usual)

This is from the beginning of Book II of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (this edition is OK for a modern one, but I like the now very hard-to-find George Long translation that my mother gave me many years ago and from which I quote here):

"Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, the arrogant, the deceitful, the envious, the unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that is beautiful and of the bad that is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong that it is akin to me, not only that it is of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, so no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him."

Especially good advice for me, in all my current roles, and for many of my friends who are currently embarking on serious public service for the first time. Our customers, constituents, comrades - call them what we will - now only approach us when they find something wrong in what we are doing, and we must not let this fact, that only the disordered, the dysfunctional, the distressing seems worthy to them of their comment, poison our love for them or our dedication to serving them, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant our interactions with them on a daily basis become.

Especially hard to follow, for a hothead like me, but all the more necessary. For the last year I have tried to keep this advice in mind, and for the year ahead I pledge to try to apply it even more so.

For my sake, and for yours.

Good night.

Friday, November 23, 2001


I have a feeling that most of my fellow residents are not in Saratoga today. It's the day after Thanksgiving, and even though the nearest mall is over 200 miles away, and even though it's snowing heavily (for which I give thanks - it's about time I got to hit the ski trails!!), I'm pretty sure lots of people are out of town hitting those big sales.

It kind of drives me nuts, personally and professionally, the way this phenomenon gets everyone so bunged up. The shoppers themselves get defensive, for example, in a really entertaining way. There's nothing like strolling the aisles of the Super Wal-Mart in Laramie and watching people from our valley trying not to notice one another, or be noticed, unpatriotically spending their money in Albany County. Some get downright furtive, putting on huge pairs of sunglasses and donning headscarves in a move that is sure to draw more, not less, attention to themselves. Others don't mind being noticed, but make a point of only having things in their carts that they can't buy in Saratoga or Encampment, things like exotic vegetables (though really, the selection in our local grocer's produce section is getting damned good), conspicuously unusual kinds of furniture, household staples like toilet paper and laundry detergent...

Wait a minute TOILET PAPER and LAUNDRY DETERGENT? That's where we run into trouble. You can actually get most anything you want in Saratoga; if the local store doesn't have it, it can usually be ordered and there's usually not much of a wait to get it. It may seem to cost more, but that's because there is still the transportation of the item(s) to pay for - which is why pretty much everything else seems a little more expensive here than in Laramie or wherever.

But see, the cost of transporting that toilet paper or VCR or sack of froo-froo dog food is incorporated into that price. The same thing at Wal-Mart in Laramie has a few lower digits on the price tag because only the cost of transport to Laramie is included. But a shopper is going to pay the cost of getting it to Saratoga one way or another. Gasoline to get there and back, wear and tear on the car, the cost of a meal or two out (because is anyone really going to drive that far just to spend an hour in the store? Not a lot of people do that, and so make a day of it. Which means at some point one have to eat), etc. When one adds those on to the price tag, no one is really saving money.

Such is the local merchants' argument, and it's a valid one. But what the local merchants seem to miss in ranting this way is the intangible aspect of the equation.

Going out of town to shop is FUN! Even if the roads suck (as they do today) and there's a risk of being stranded (in a motel if you're lucky, in a community center or gymnasium if you're not, in your car 35 miles outside of, say, Medicine Bow if you've really pissed off your god(s)), the pleasure of an outing is undeniable. It's the draw of the novel: the chance to see people one doesn't see every day, in places that aren't quite as familiar as the 100-year-old hardware store and the feed store that's the only place in town that sells underwear and the grocery store where all of one's co-workers are wandering up and down the same aisles as he is. It's a change of scenery.

And the stuff that one would have to place an order for in Saratoga - that book he's wanted to read but the library still doesn't have yet (or for which the waiting list is ten names long), groovy chrome shelving he didn't even know existed but would look great in his den, that shampoo that was in the hotel on her last vacation that smelled so good and she never thought she'd find - is all right there! No waiting, no telling a personal friend or acquaintance all of the details of what is wanted and why. It's just there. Grab it, buy it with minimal chitchat with the blissfully unknown clerk at the cash register, and go.

And the need to eat out while shopping in a distant town is also a pleasure - again, it's something new, something different. Look, they have a Chinese restaurant here! Ooh, I hear that place is good. Hey - this coffee bar has 90 different varieties of coffee beans instead of just 40!

It's just a fact about small town life that store owners, gnashing their teeth as they watch carloads of Christmas shoppers heading out of town, will never be able to change.

Fortunately, there is a reverse trend, as manifested on this day last year while I was doing a sort of small-town version of the retail shopping trends stories one sees the Denver TV stations do on the day after Thanksgiving, as they eye the behavior of shoppers on this day as a means to gauge the whole economic future of an area.

As I went up and down Bridge and First and Spring Streets, chatting with store owners and restauranteurs, a pattern emerged that no one really should have found surprising.

No, not a lot of locals were shopping today, I was told in store after store. But LOTS of out-of-towners. And they're spending LOTS of money!

People from Denver, Laramie, Cheyenne, Rock Springs, even Rawlins (just 40 miles away, and with its larger, sexier grocery store and its movie theater, which Saratoga sadly lacks, a very popular shopping trip destination for valley residents - and thus a huge sore spot for these local retailers) had come down here to enjoy a nice, quiet holiday weekend in a small town. Others were here visiting grandparents and parents and wanted to bring back something unusual and, yes, usually quaint, for the kids or friends back home.

They wanted to be somewhere different, to see different people, to see friendly people who chat up strangers and old friends alike in the stores and who might even remember one from a previous year's visit. They wanted something unique and special.

And of course they weren't just spending money in the stores. They'd had to buy gasoline to get here and they would have to buy gasoline to get home. They'd perhaps needed a place to stay. They'd eaten in our restaurants. They'd availed themselves of the hot pool (and unlike most locals, they'd probably left a donation in the box there).

So I think really in the long run it's all right that not a lot of locals are downtown shopping today. Let them go to Denver, to Laramie, to Fort Collins.

People from there are returning the favor and coming here.