Monday, June 28, 2010

Best Big-Eared Woman I Know

Last week my son drove me in his fancy car to Arizona, where I had the opportunity to talk about Tainted Legacy to a group of writers in Prescott, sell a few books, and, on our second day, visit with my good friend, Willma Gore, in Sedona. Willma (yes, two l’s) has been my mentor in writing for about a decade. She is 89, and still the most prolific writer I know. In fact, she’s just finished writing a memoir (finally) and has already found a publisher, so I suspect the book will be out by her 90th birthday. It was Willma who arranged the gig for me with the Professional Writers of Prescott group. The members were gracious and responsive to my talk—no doubt because Willma had insisted to them that I was a good speaker and they’d darn well better appreciate me. She’s like that, and it always reminds me of my mom. Both were women who did not have the circumstances of life unfurl gracefully before them, but rather had to fight with life in order to wrest some satisfaction from it. I see Willma now, still writing, still publishing, still teaching workshops and doing book tours, and I know that there is hope for a long life of creativity for me as well. While we were in Sedona, Willma told us she had recently met a man who said to her, ‘You have big ears. That means you will live a long time.’ May it be so, my friend, may it be so.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bear as Totem

Hanging from the rearview mirror of my Tacoma is a Zuni fetish necklace that was given to me by a somewhat demented poet nineteen years ago. It is made up of birds and other small animals carved from stone, but the primary fetish, the one that hangs down front and center, is a bear. When G.K. sent me the necklace from Arizona, he told me that its purpose was to keep me safe, and he acknowledged, back then, my connection to the bear as totem. Before the Tacoma, the necklace hung in my Dodge. Before that, the Bronco, and before that, the Bronco II. It has been in every truck I’ve owned and, apart from other drivers tapping me, I’ve not been in an accident.

Several Sundays ago, a yearling bear cub found its way onto my back deck from the forest. This is not the first bear to visit my cabin. Three summers ago, on my birthday, I looked out the French doors at 5:00a.m. to see a huge dark chocolate bear snuffing around on the deck. I watched him for an hour as he licked up some birdseed I’d just scattered for the jays and juncos and woodpeckers. Then he ambled off. That was a hot, dry summer that followed a dry winter; the bears had little to eat, so the big guy (whom I called Roosevelt) and a smaller, cinnamon colored bear cruised by often, usually at breakfast when they smelled toast, though Roosevelt did come by one evening after I’d heated some pasta with pesto sauce. They were good bears, and they would leave when encouraged to do so. We never saw them in broad daylight.

When this little guy showed up, it was 11:00a.m. I had some guests, my neighbor Eric and my friend Liz, over for brunch, and I’d baked a peach cobbler. Apparently this young bear had picked up the scent, and as he trudged up the stone steps and onto the deck, his nostrils were flaring as he sniffed the air. We looked out the window to look for a mama, but there was no sign of any adult. I stepped out onto my back porch step, one hand left casually on the doorknob as an escape plan. The cub shuffled up to me. He was bearskin on bones, sharp hips protruding under his scruffy hide. He nuzzled my hand, then licked it. I spoke to him quietly, all the while searching the forest beyond my deck for a mother bear. He was too skinny, too lethargic. Mama was long gone. Eric and Liz watched from the window. When the little cub began to nibble my finger to taste for food, I tried to withdraw my hand slowly, so as not to spook him, and ended up having the side of my finger pinched between his teeth. The skin cracked, and it bled a bit, so Liz made me come inside. While I doused my finger in peroxide, smeared it with Neosporin and covered it with a small band-aid, the young bear climbed up on the roof and wandered around up top, looking down through the skylights. Finally, he disappeared back into the forest.

That was a magical encounter, something you think of as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, like the day the huge buck walked out of the forest and onto my back deck, or the night I walked through the cabin in the dark at bedtime and saw, in the moonlight, a small fox looking in at my French doors. We never expected to see the little bear again, and we wondered if he would survive on his own.

Sadly, we have seen him again—and again and again and again. A day or so after he was here, he discovered the lodge down the road. A young woman there has begun to feed him. The folks in the Forest Service (which, by the way, is an imprecise nomenclature, but don’t get me started) have a saying: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Thus it is only a matter of time for our little friend. He comes by nearly every day. I’ve seen my neighbors throw rocks at him, set their dogs after him, and have overheard plans to shoot him with a paintball gun. Bears that become “trash bears,” dependent on humans to leave out or hand out food, quickly come to expect it, then demand it. On Sunday, I chased the cub out of a neighbor’s car. He was after the pizza left in the front seat. By Wednesday, he had already attempted to break into a car, though the owner insists she’d left no food inside.

In these cases, the Forest Service will wait until the bear becomes a nuisance or has a dangerous encounter with humans, then they’ll shoot it. It’s only a matter of time now. The little bear is seen every day across the highway at the campground. Small and skinny, he makes a great photo op for the campers (whom I’ve heard have been feeding him all manner of things). When he is a couple of hundred pounds heavier and rifling through the food they’ve left out on the picnic table, it will be a different story.

Yesterday the bear showed up on my back deck again. I walked out to gently shoo him away, telling him to go back to the forest. He stood his ground as I walked toward him. I raised my arms gently to shoo him off, and he growled, then snapped his jaws in my direction. He wasn’t being aggressive, it was just a warning, and I understood. He’s had his loss of innocence, and he knows now not to trust Two-Legs. I retreated quietly into the house.

This is what I find difficult, and perhaps ethically irresponsible, about living in the forest (and believe me, I include myself in the accusation). The bears were here first. They’ve lived on this mountain for hundreds of years, and they live here so they can keep their distance from humans. What are they to do when we encroach on their territory? Their patch of forest grows smaller every day. As rugged as this mountain is, there are very few places now untrammeled by hikers and mountaineers. Our arrogance is foolish and na├»ve when we assume the right to go everywhere, explore every place. Again, don’t get me started.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Feet of steel, not clay

Somewhere in Ridgecrest, California there is a satyr-like man doing a satyr-like dance around his livingroom, imbued with a sense of revelry because he thinks he was right, profoundly, absolutely right about something.

In 2006, when Floyd Landis won the Tour de France, I was happy for him. Floyd seemed like a nice guy, and he was a good cyclist, having ridden with Lance Armstrong. But immediately following the win came the announcement that Landis had tested positive for extremely high levels of testosterone, meaning he’d supplemented the hormone to enhance his performance. Thus began a flurry of email exchanges between myself and the satyr. On my part, I was defending Landis, just waiting to see what his hearings would bear out. On the satyr’s part, he saw this as concrete evidence of what he’d believed all along—that all professional cyclists dope, including and especially Lance.

Sigh. Of course this is a man who does not follow and has never followed professional cycling. When you talk to someone who remarks, ‘Why is this a big surprise to anyone? All cyclists dope!’ you can be sure they don’t follow cycling. You can be equally sure that they’re entrenched in their opinion—like the satyr, who was convinced that my starry-eyed love of Lance had blinded me. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I didn’t even like Lance before he had cancer. I’d followed his career since he was a teenager, and I didn’t like his attitude. To say he was rough around the edges is an understatement. Most boys who ride bikes competitively come from a background of privilege, which is understandable, given the cost of the sport. Lance was raised by a single mom who, at times, struggled to make ends meet. Lance was strong-willed, and he lived and rode with a huge chip on his shoulder for years. Fighting cancer knocked that chip off, made him human, then made him super-human as he fought valiantly to come back even stronger than he was before. The chemo-therapy changed his body and metabolism permanently, making him a lean, less-mean pedaling machine. People have told me, ‘He almost died. How do you think he came back and won the Tour de France? He had to have taken steroids.’ My response has always been, ‘You don’t know Lance.’ It will continue to be so until there is evidence produced that he has used performance enhancers. Even just once.

Before the recent Amgen Tour of California, Floyd Landis, no longer suspended from cycling, expressed his desire for an invitation to race. As I understand it, he sent out emails months in advance of the tour, vaguely threatening to go public with information about others doping if he didn’t get to race. He didn’t, and suddenly in the midst of the tour, he made an announcement admitting, finally, that he had used performance enhancers. Part of his ‘confession’ included telling tales on nearly every professional cyclist out there, not just Lance, but men like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer, cyclists who are known as men of integrity in the sport.

You will draw your own conclusions. The satyr has, I’m sure. Though we no longer correspond, I’m confident in my vision of him doing a victory dance. I would only caution the public, as Emerson did, to form opinions slowly, and be ready to change them if new information arises. Winning in tour competition is not a matter of the strongest, fastest man on a bike. Winning requires experience, skill, strategy, teamwork, quick-thinking, fierce determination and a whole lot of luck. Lance was fortunate to have had all those tools in the years that he dominated the sport. And, post-cancer, he could add one more critical component: The ability to withstand intense pain without giving up.

Has the revelation of Floyd Landis diminished my love of cycling? Not one whit. I look forward with great excitement to next month’s Tour de France, will plan my summer schedule around it as I have for over twenty years, and once again, seeing what these guys endure will inspire me to work hard for what I want to achieve in life… and it will get me back on my bike.

*Note: The photo accompanying today’s blog was taken during a stage of this year’s Tour of California. These riders created a six-man breakaway that led nearly all of a 135-mile stage. In the Stars & Stripes jersey is George Hincapie, my hero and last year’s National Professional Road Champion.