Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas charm

The road toward my first Christmas away from home confirmed a charmed life. I'd abandoned three retail jobs I was working simultaneously and quit the lovely, but WAY out-of-my-price range liberal arts college in Portland I'd attended, where I'd racked up enough debt to bury a Bloomberg (hint: it's Monica Lewinsky's alma mater). My last month's rent at an apartment in Southwest P-Town was the agreed-upon price of a respectable, matching davenport and chair my grandparents had given me some months earlier.

November, 1981. I was a drop-out, floundering, working my ass off, getting nowhere. On a whim a few weeks earlier, I'd picked up the phone and called the ski school director in Vail, Colo. 
"Are you certified?" he asked.
"Yes," I said.
"I can put you to work, but not 'til mid-December.
"Great! I'll be there."


I had assumed the few bucks I'd saved would last until my first paycheck landed. 

They didn't.

A friendly, dread-locked, trust-funder ski-bum I met within minutes of rolling into town invited me to stay in his den of iniquity, a place packed with roommates and other freeloaders. "Stay as long as you want," he said.


That first night in Vail was a sleepless Tuesday, two days before Thanksgiving, there in a crowded condo where the party never ended and my "room" was a couch in the middle of it all. The next morning...
"You gotta go. Change of plans. Parents are coming in for the weekend."

A drafty, Victorian flophouse in Minturn, circa 1880s, provided shelter the next several nights, but not much warmth. In those days, Minturn was the anti-Vail, the low-low rent district on the other side of the mountain and the tracks, still little more than the way station it had been for 100 years. The building was three stories, white, tall, skinny and uninsulated, a long, single-paned window looking out from each room. It housed railroad workers on overnighters as they passed through. Rooms were small and bare, plank floors and walls, with a shared bath down the hall. Ten bucks a night, BYO bedding. I threw my sleeping bag on the cot. Shivering by night, searching for better digs by day but with no money to offer, my bitty coffers dwindled.

That first night out of the flophouse, I hung out in my car till fingers and toes screamed from the cold, then stole into the lobby of the Holiday Inn. I'd grown up in the relative balm of the Pacific Northwest. The Rockies presented a level of cold I'd not experienced. Two hours, maybe three, there in a cushy chair by the fireplace, I checked my watch regularly and looked around, pretending to wait for someone. The desk clerk ignored me for awhile, but his looks grew more frequent, longer with each glance, until I was sure he was onto me. So I cruised downtown to the bus depot, parked my frozen fanny on a hard wood bench, read the paper, dozed. Buses pulled in and out, but I had no place to go. The sun rose. That's when I met Gerry.
"You can stay with us," he said. "Buy groceries when you get paid. Pay a little rent if you can. You'll have to sleep on the sofa, but I'm sure Ed won't mind. Nice guy. We rent a room from him. Ed works graveyard at Safeway. We never see him."


Gerry's wife Sue was an engineer with a real job working for a small company in Avon or Eagle, one of those once tiny mountain towns west along the Interstate. Gerry was an instructor like me, tickled that we would be colleagues. Their plan was to enjoy the ski bum life for a few years before returning home to Pennsylvania, where they'd start a business and raise a family. The next morning, warm and well-rested, it seemed a good time to introduce myself at the ski school office, fill out paperwork, pick up my uniform and stash my gear, though I wasn't scheduled to start work for another week.

Alone in the locker room, I was hanging my parka and pants when a young man burst through the heavy, gray doors.
"You're Toni, right?"
"You're certified? I mean, have you taught before?"
"I have a group of 12 level never-evers and no instructor. Can you take them? Now?"


Late Christmas Eve, and the village stores were closed. Lights twinkled and snow drifted upon us in fat, soft flakes as we strolled the streets of Vail, peering into shop windows, ogling stoles and coats made from the hides and furs of dead animals.
"You could buy a BMW for that!" I said.
"You could buy a house for that!" Sue said.
We sang carols with revised lyrics. Later on, we'll perspire, as we sweat, by the fire...
No gifts, no pressure, no family obligations, we shared a walk, a meal, laughter, and friendship.


It was a wonderful Christmas.

May your holidays be so charmed this year. Peace!


Sunday, December 02, 2012

Maynard lives!

I guess the little guy had stored enough chow for a few days and didn't need my offerings. Mice sometimes get into stuff they shouldn't -- that's why they're so easy to poison, on purpose or by accident. I left a bag of bacterial digestive drain stuff on the counter next to the sink some weeks ago. The next morning, microorganism-laden bits were scattered across the counter, a large hole gnawed into the thick plastic container. The label reads, "Harmful if taken internally. Keep out of reach of children."

Maynard was fine after that incident, and I've seen no evidence of similar mischief since. He's a survivor, like his ancestors, resourceful adaptors like mine. Living softly as we do today, however, no predators to evade, as much food wasted as consumed, all things sanitized and pasteurized for our protection, minds unchallenged, numbed by technology and trivia, I wonder if we aren't sliding backward along a muddied, evolutionary trail.

We've set ourselves up for the greatest challenge yet, an epic episode of Survivor with all humanity, all life as we know it on planet earth at stake. The predators have morphed. The tracking of sustenance has changed. Our best hope is to avoid our own progress. We're back to discovering food that won't kill us, ways of life that won't poison our environment, stunt our psyches or compromise our ethics. We evade predators daily, the sharks of our time. Maynard has avoided the hawks and foxes that prowl the adjacent pasture by ducking into this cabin. Whether it's by luck or intuition, he's chosen this particular land-ship to stow away. He's safe, for now, lives day to day as best he can, but without assumptions. Maynard is opportunistic, but not exploitative. He's broken away from his pack, or herd, or however mice roll. He's like the risk-takers, rebels and weirdos of our species, the entrepreneurs and self-mades, the mad, reclusive scientists, the nerds who read, write and ponder rather than watch TV, outcasts who eschew what's mass produced, plasticized, homogenized, and pest-resistant, those who pedal or walk rather than drive, create rather than destroy, value life and beauty and nature over things. My bet's on them to save the world. Artists and free-thinkers are not trickling brooks divergent from the main stream, but rather the flourishing, nourishing tributaries that feed it. Concrete or abstract, it is their crazy revelations, their witness to and conveyance of truth that keeps humanity a hair's width ahead of its sprint toward self-destruction.

Hyperbolic you say? A little mouse's escapades analogous to all that?  Maybe....