Friday, January 18, 2002


It's just 5:30 p.m. on Ice Fishing Derby Eve as I sit down to type this. Early reports tell me there is a veritable tent city on ice where Saratoga Lake used to be as avid fishermen from all over the region have converged on our little valley to angle for the magic $25,000 prize fish my colleagues and I turned loose there Wednesday morning.

This is hardly my first derby, but it's my first in charge, my first turn as the Derby Dame and I'm pretty jazzed. I spent this entire day whizzing around town like a human pinball, collecting door prizes here (door prizes! You've never seen so many door prizes – or such quality in them!), picking up ticket stubs and money there, making bank deposits (counting our coffee klatsch this morning, the manager of our local bank saw me five times today, poor thing! But I just hate having that much cash on me, actually physically loathe money, the slightly greasy feel of it, the texture, the smell it leaves on my hands. Freud was right to equate it with excrement). We've loaded up our new chamber president's truck with all of the prizes and paraphernalia, we have two, count them, two travel trailers parked out at the lake to serve as derby headquarters – and unlike at certain other derbies in which I have participated this year, they will be impossible to mistake for anything but derby headquarters.

I've lined up a special celebrity derby offical, a popular Laramie bar singer who is also entertaining at my favorite local bar tonight and tomorrow night. As of this writing, I'm planning on taking up residence there both nights, but am very worried about pacing myself, as breakfast, courtesy of the Knights of Columbus, is at 5:30 a.m. each morning, and then I've hours and hours of being the one to whom everyone turns with problems ranging from "is that a trout or a sucker?" to "can we use minnows as bait if we kill them first?" to "what if the person who wins the giant 25 gallon bottle of schnapps is a teetotaler?"... so I'd better be at my best.

I don't suppose the weekend I'm anticipating is everybody's cup of tea, but right now the satisfaction of seeing plans begun back in September coming to some sort of fruition outweighs any dread of freezing cold, stress at unforseen difficulties, dismay at long hours, or disgust at all the cash I'm going to have to handle that lurk deep in the recesses of my brain, untouched by the repeated surges of adrenaline (and of powerful gratitude – those of you who do not live here cannot imagine how cool everyone is being, how generous with their time have been the volunteers I've drafted, how creative have been the businesses from whom I've solicited door prizes, how accommodating the media outlets through whom I've advertised this thing have been. Really, this is an event with so much history and goodwill attached to it that Clytaemnestra could have made it go well) which have helped me overcome every challenge so far.

But today is meaningless, as my ever-so-supportive coffee buddies never tire of telling me.

We'll see how I feel when I come in for java Monday morning.

Thursday, January 17, 2002


I've been getting lots of e-mail forwards lately about what have come to be called "senior moments" (I believe the term has even made it into the dictionaries), and they make me laugh, but not in quite the way they are intended to do.

You've all seen something like them, I am sure: elaborate narratives or pithy lists that illustrate, in gentle, self-mocking tones, the writer's inability to keep track of the minutiae of modern life. Some are positively elegiac in their wistful evocation of earlier, better days when the narrator could juggle knives, breathe fire, balance the books of a major corporation, roof a house, raise two children and three St. Bernards, and supervise an initial public stock offering while still keeping track of car keys, glasses, haircut appointments and household bills.

But the nostalgia is not the thing that makes me laugh – and wince – and fume.

It's the basic assumption about what human beings are and can do and should do that underlies these things that bothers me.

I am often, especially when I'm a bit in my cups, heard to observe that we late 20th/early 21st century humans have created a world in which we are not competent to live.

Even when I'm not in my cups, I stand by this observation.

Ever since we first developed machines that could generate a thousand exact copies of the same piece of cloth, brick, cut of wood, coffee cup, or glass bead, we've been establishing for ourselves ever higher standards for perfection and uniformity. Handmade or animal-powered (and yes, human-powered is still animal-powered) devices, gewgaws, parts are now simultaneously inferior (because not uniform and hence not universally adaptable, not identical, idiosyncratic, flawed - and thus undesirably impractical) and superior (because not uniform and hence not universally adaptable, not identical, idiosyncratic, flawed - and thus desirably unique and imbued with considerable snob appeal), but they are NOT the standard.

The standard is a mechanical perfection; the right size and fit, the right weight and density, the right composition and design, so that the thing can be effortlessly incorporated as a part of the whole with no surprises, no breakdowns, no pauses or inconveniences.

And because our tools and toys now work so well, that same standard of perfection now applies to people, whether we like it or not – because ultimately the equipment is only as good as those who run and maintain it, right?

What is more dreaded, what more assiduously avoided, what more sneeringly discussed, than OPERATOR ERROR?

Operator error happens because we are idiosyncratic and flawed, designed for much more – and much less – than just supervising machinery, obeying mechanical clocks, adhering to procedures. We're made of water, that weirdest of elements (my high school science teacher, in preparing us for a discussion of water's weird properties, opened his remarks with the memorable observation that "Water is a strange duck," and the surrealism of his statement exactly captures just how odd water is. Surface tension alone, that quality of water that makes it possible for Yeats' long-legged fly to skim across a pond, can, if I let it, get me to doubting most of my assumptions about the way the physical world works), and of dozens of other elements set to growing along certain largely predictable patterns – but there are all sorts of crazy wild cards in our genes that can give us disease, make us taller or shorter than "normal" (and thus harder to clothe since everything comes in standard, machine-made sizes now).

We are to a certain degree slaves to our DNA and the drive to replicate that molecule skews a lot of our behavior patterns, distracting us with direct and indirect thoughts of sex (think for a moment of how much of what you do in a day isn't in some way an attempt to impress the opposite sex? Your material needs are only a small part of why you work to make money, for instance) (and these drives and more are still there even after you've had children, grandchildren even), eating, drinking, and other messy and imperfect activities..

In other words, our bodies, which only the seriously deluded can even try to say do not affect our temperaments, preferences, and patterns with a straight face, have other priorities than accommodating the requirements of a machine-based society.

But do we accept this and deal with it? Or do we see this as a character flaw which must be ruthlessly corrected?

I feel foolish from time to time when I come home to my apartment and see that there are four or five half-filled cups of lukewarm coffee strewn about – sometimes in very odd places. A reasonable, stable, properly functioning person should only need one cup to drink her morning coffee, should remember where that cup is at all times while she follows a rational, orderly routine in getting ready for work, should methodically empty and refill that one cup instead of forgetting she's already got one going somewhere and grabbing a clean one and pouring... right?

But really, who's in charge here?

What purpose would be served by my devoting a significant portion of the weird sac of water and grey matter in my head to keeping track of whether or not I've left a coffee cup on my dressing table?

And more importantly, what else could I be doing with that brainspace were I not focusing so on where my coffee is?

A large part of the fun of being alive is the funky play that's going on in all of our heads each day. We sit at our desks, for example, toiling away at something but every once in a while we chuckle for no good reason because our inefficient, illogical brains have decided suddenly to remind us of that stupid joke a friend told us the day before, or of a sweet remark a spouse or lover made as we were leaving for work that morning, or of a piece of rueful e-mail about the little indignities of growing older that a colleague just zapped our way.

Our capacity for being so distracted is one of my favorite things about our race, if you can't tell. This capacity is what has produced all the good stuff – all of the books and the plays and the music and the paintings and the photography... and all of the machines. Everything we have made started with someone being distracted from what he was "supposed" to be doing by something that seemed more interesting, amusing or important.

I got started writing this column, incidentally, because I couldn't find my keys. And it's funny: in the course of writing it, I have remembered that I left them in my coat pocket last night when I got home to confront the coffee cups. Yep, there they are.

I don't feel a bit sorry for having lost track of them for a while.

And neither should you.

Wednesday, January 16, 2002


When I started this web page, I made myself a promise. I promised never to mention, criticize, tease or otherwise acknowledge a certain other media outlet serving my fair valley, lest I come to appear petty, vindictive or otherwise unpleasant to have at parties.

But... but... but... but...

Anti-pig ordinance?

Anti-PIG ordinance?


We don't have an anti-pig ordinance, and, I'll go out on a limb and declare, we never will, unless, say, Al-Qaeda somehow finally defeats us all and we are forcibly converted to Islam (under which code the pig and all of its kin are ritually unclean animals).

Imagine if we did have an anti-pig ordinance for a moment!

No bacon at the grocery store (Oh, hey, instant opportunity for a black market. Maybe I need to rethink this whole thing...).

A certain long-established and civic-minded family would have to go to court to change their surname or else leave town. Granted, the middle daughter is a senior this year and so we only have one more season in which to extract more state championships out of her, but still I think they'd be missed.

And of course we'd have a certain paucity in the area of law enforcement.

No, we have many interesting things in the Saratoga Municipal Code, but there is nowhere an anti-pig ordinance.

What we have, as part of Titillating Title 18's Chapter 42, which outlines general district regulations (i.e. rules common to all zoning categories, be they residential, industrial or commercial) and in section 150 treats on the matter of horses and other barnyard animals, runs as follows:

18.42.150 - Horses Any person who keeps a horse or several horses on any lot containing a single family dwelling unit shall keep not more than one horse for the private use of each member of the family living on the premises. The horses shall not be kept or housed within fifty feet of any street or highway. The lots shall have at least ten thousand square feet of area for each horse. Provisions shall be made by the individual landowner to maintain the horse on such property. The keeping of all other barnyard animals in residential districts shall be prohibited.

(Emphasis mine)

All hooting about anti-pig ordinances aside, it is under this section of the zoning code that our planning commission has called Saratoga High School's ag program onto the carpet. Two pigs are currently in residence behind the school, in violation of this section, and there have been complaints from neighbors.

So last week, the planning commission took up the matter formally with representatives of the ag program, as was reported in a local newspaper.


While it is true, as has been reported in a local newspaper, that Exhibits A and B in the great Hog and Pony Show of 2002 have been given a period of 120 days to remain in their current quarters, it is not true that the planning commission, the town council, or anyone at all has agreed to change any part of the Saratoga Municipal Code as pertains to this matter!

What has happened is that a certain degree of public support, together with planning commission members' own respect for what the ag program is trying to do in developing such a good, hands-on project for students, has prompted the planning commission to attempt to reach a compromise in the short run – the school year will be over before the 120 days are up – and give program students yet another good, hands-on learning activity this year: the kids and their teacher have been strongly encouraged to work with the commission in developing a proposal to amend the zoning code to allow certain, limited, exceptions for the school. While they're learning to raise pigs, why not learn a bit about how municipal government works, too? I daresay a good civics lesson might be more universally useful to the kids in the long run than a bout of animal husbandry.

(I am trying very hard to refrain from remarking that certain other entities within the community could use civics lessons as well, but as you see I am failing miserably).

If the kids help draft an amendment or addition to Title 18, and if what is proposed is reasonable, the planning commission will consider it, and if they find it acceptable, they will recommend to the Saratoga Town Council (to quote my lifelong hero, Frank Zappa, "That's me! That's me! Ohhhhhhh!) that it be passed and adopted.

Then the council will give the change three readings, during which it will be much discussed, possibly amended, subjected to legal and law enforcement review, and made the subject of hilarious political cartoons in the local media before it is at last accepted or rejected.

That's going to take a while.

But for now, no poor little piggies are getting turned out – though I for one and our planning commission chairman for another would really rather this whole line of thinking were discarded and the pigs moved. The commission chairman has pointed out to me that Carbon County School District No. 2 owns property very near the school, where its bus barn is located, that is zoned differently and where it would be acceptable for the pigs to be kept. No, it's not right in the school's backyard and the kids and teacher would have to walk a block or two to reach the animals, but it's not, I think, any farther than the football team walks each day between the football field and the locker rooms.

As for the many citizens in this town who have voiced their warm support for the Saratoga High School and Hog Farm, be assured that I have taken note of your opinions. I have taken very careful note (and have observed, to my not very great surprise, that all who have expressed support for the piggies live well upwind from them). I will remember who among you told me to quit picking on those poor pigs. And if any of you later come to complain of the smell or the horse flies that will most likely accompany the pigs into the warmer months (anyone remember the last time hogs lived on the west bench? I still have a few scars from some nasty insect bites...), I will remind you of these expressions of support.

Yo he hablado. Harumph!

Monday, January 14, 2002


"I think back to the time
When I wouldn't drink wine,
And they taught me right and wrong
And black and white.

"Sometimes I cried
Stumbling through my youth,
'Cause I loved so much
Yet so little."

- Doug Pinnock, Ty Tabor and Jerry Gaskill, "The Fine Art of Friendship"

It's a good song I've quoted here, better than most of my readers will ever know, but even I never really appreciated it, never really got it before tonight.

In 1988, I was 18 years old, fresh out of high school, ready to take on the world, riding swiftly out of town on a big scholarship to a swanky school of which no one in my little world here had ever heard. I did not look back, couldn't get out of this town fast enough, thought of Saratoga and its environs only as a torture chamber in which I had suffered and from which I was now free. I would never come back willingly, except to visit my parents, whom I regarded as the only people here whom I would ever wish to see. I burned no bridges in reality, but in my soul the very borders of Wyoming were scorched beyond recognition.

But still I carried all of this life we've known with me. I made a name for myself on the east coast for telling a good yarn about the people I'd left behind, for being the only person in my dorm who knew how to tap a keg (a skill I'd acquired during my elementary school years as a dugout rat for the infamous Over The Hill Gang), for being from a land more exotic and unknown than even Casablanca or Patmos or the Yangtse River. I carried it with me and over the years it grew within me until I had no choice but to come back.

And now I am back, and now I know what was going on before. It's straight out of one of my friend's books: as many who have read them know, James Hillman is a firm believer in "life lived backwards," as his illustrations of, e.g. the famous bullfighter Manolete demonstrate. Manolete as a youngster was so shy he never ventured beyond his mother's skirts; he feared everything and everyone. James says (and so do I) that this was because something in him knew that someday he would face huge hulking fierce hellbeasts for a living, but the six year old he then was could not cope with them. With such a destiny before you, would you not cling to such skirts as were there in which to hide?

So did I feel nothing but misunderstanding bordering on contempt for the people for whom I would someday feel such tremendous stewardship that I would endure anything that fate threw my way to remain among them.

A lot of things have happened to make me feel this way.

An example of what I'm talking about came this last weekend, when for the first time I got up before my own people and spoke (True, I had given a campaign speech of sorts when I was first a candidate for the town council, but that forum was poorly attended, and the small number that was there largely comprised my own well-wishers who were so determined that I would succeed that I probably could have been much more silly than I was and still met with their approval). My duty was merely to welcome them and prepare them for the full slate of oratory (and yes, even I agree that same wound up being a little too full, and our young advocate for embracing change and I are busy paring down her speech for competition) that lay before them (I am a terribly partial speech coach, I am!), but still, as I looked out at that gathering of over 100 people whom I have come to admire and respect more than anyone else in the world, I felt a swell of pride and love and hope and the will to do even more than I have to keep this place one in which we could all justly say it was worth any sacrifice to live.

It's still there, this feeling, many days hence, because of the other gift I received in coming back to this valley.

I have the most stunningly remarkable collection of friends that perhaps has ever existed anywhere in the world, people who do nothing deliberately to raise my spirits but do so simply by being themselves and sharing their thoughts.

I have a veritable Henry Miller in my life ("I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive" Miller wrote in his first and greatest book. My friend who seems to me Miller reborn is in a materially much more favorable position, but has reached that same state of grace, as rare today as it was nearly 70 years ago when Miller sat typing away in his garret in Paris, and one which is infectious and communicates itself easily to me whether I spend five minutes or five hours talking to this modern counterpart).

I have a friend down in Riverside so passionate and so radical that he makes me seem a church-going, Pat Boone listening Rotarian, and who recharges my own passion, my will to work and to take care of what the gods have set before me like no other.

I have an ice fishing buddy whose insights into the human soul at 22 awe and humble me and fill me with giddy anticipation as to what kind of person, what kind of citizen he will be when he finally is able to take his place here.

I have a friend whose eye and hand can make heart-breaking images of the most ordinary sights - a rusted car, a rock, an abandoned launch site, and who keeps me believing that someday I will have a contribution to make to this world on a par with his. It might not be so, but belief matters, as he has taught me.

I have a friend whose every word is some surreal kind of poetry that I understand instantly and yet could spend the rest of my life trying to interpret.

And there are more, so many more. A desert mystic, a hilariously funky speech coach, a gifted teacher, a rock painter and a caretaker, a chef, a poet, a ruthless businessman, a quirky attorney/horticulturalist, a duo of wine connoiseurs who also like a good cheap shot of horrible schnapps... the list goes on, and I'm still only talking about the people who physically live here.

I have a night sky above me vivid and pulsing as I make the drive from one town to another in my endless stream of meetings. To my right as I return from Encampment burns Orion, which always reminds me of Ajax, my particular patron hero who is worth a column all his own for his impact on my life, and on yours, too, if you let him teach you. Poor Ajax, so often thought to be just a warrior lunkhead, standing athwart history and fate at the cost of his sanity and his life. He's there in all of us, and especially in me, and in you who set your jaw from time to time and draw a line in the sand and say "this further and no more," and maybe you successfully fight back the forces that oppose you and maybe you don't, but still you stand.

As I read over these lines, late of a Monday night that has been filled with giddy, silly winter carnival plans and Guiness-soaked plots for Encampment's future and intense reminiscing about what this valley was and can be, I have to laugh at what many who don't know me, don't know us, would make of it.

Any trained therapist except for James, for example, would look at this entry and mark it as a symptom of mania, as he would doubtless examine my private notebooks, written in the depths of insomnia and a serious sense of my own unworthiness to complete the tasks I've been set, and say AHA! This girl is bipolar, or manic depressive, or something. Clearly deluded, in need of help, even chemical assistance. There are those who would read this and put me on Paxil or Zoloft or some other godawful pharmaceutical horror that certainly would temper my reactions, soften my edges, dampen my mood swings, but at what horrible, horrible cost? I'll take the dizzying highs and the horrid lows. I'll take the depths and the heights, for they make me know that I am alive, and that I am where the gods have always expected me to be.

On a small scale, happiness is sitting in a beloved pub with a beloved friend, swilling Guiness and ranting about jury nullification. On the grand, happiness is being where one is supposed to be, in accord with the wishes of whatever powers placed one there, doing the work one was born to do. When all that is right, the very air around one sings out that it is so, making it, admittedly, hard to sleep at night, but the loss of a little shuteye is worth it.

This is the place and the time to be here. Many in the world would envy me, envy us for being here, where there is faith and trust in one another even if we don't always like each other all that much (winter here is funky; in another month or so we will turn into Scandinavia, populated with freaked out and despairing drunks staring blearily over glasses of rum and vodka at faces they are so sick of seeing that they'd very nearly blind themselves just for the change).

When I need volunteers for an event, it's easy to find them. When I need donations or advice or a little push to make something happen, it is there. Always. How many people in the world can say that?

I have advisors and critics (and often the critics are the most valuable; nice as it is to be loved unconditionally, the ones who think I'm a waste of human flesh often have the sanest, most reasonable perspective on what I'm trying to do), assistants and accomplices, drinking buddies and study partners, people into whose eyes I can look and know they just get it, get it all and people whom I will never understand at all, but all of them, all of them, are pulling along with me on the same yoke.

I've loved them all all along, but didn't really get it until now.

Or maybe I did, and just wasn't ready to face it.