Saturday, July 30, 2011

Summer in Kansas: Riding the Pig

It's a Saturday, nearly the last day in July, and according to the kaleidoscopic electronic hotel marquee out along the highway on the eastern edge of town, it's 100 honest-to-god degrees Fahrenheit at noon in Ulysses. (Update: by 5:00 p.m. it was 104 degrees, two hours later, a degree cooler.)

 100F - read it and weep

I walked the sidewalk around the lake ("Reclaimed waste water - do not drink or swim") in the municipal park earlier this morning, where I found a smallish three-foot bull snake coiled loosely on the concrete walk in the shade of a tree, as sound asleep as a snake ever gets, a mouse-sized bulge somewhere amidships. It was still there when I returned thirty minutes later. I don't know which I'd rather have tried to eat for breakfast - that mouse or a pretty lively bluegill that a heron was shaking into submission before swallowing entire, a finny little devil that made me wish the heron good luck with that, sucker.

As both images set a certain tone for the morning, I forewent breakfast myself - not to mention that the buffet room at the hotel sported a preternaturally large double-tiered cake stuccoed in opaque white and blue (it's a boyexclamationpoint) frosting while a family group decorated for a baby shower, spangling the place in lavender and white crepe like an Italian funeral. But those are Kansas State's liturgical colors as well, and the parents were evidently hoping to implant prenatally their own loyalties, as western Kansas is rabid (if that's the word I want) Wildcat country. (To the credit of all Kansans everywhere, I have never seen a single bumper sticker that reads, "If God isn't a Wildcat/Jayhawk/Chiefs/Royals fan, then why is the sky blue/grass green/sunsets orange/mud brown/cowshit wrinkled . . . . ?")

Last evening I went over to Sublette for the Haskell County Fair's annual 4-H livestock sale. I went as a buyer, which gave me entree to the "buyer's appreciation dinner" in the fairground's main meeting hall, which was much like an ageing, linoleum-paved church basement with a few windows. I do not mean to disparage the elderly municipal and county buildings in southwestern Kansas, as many of them are now air-conditioned - true oases in the heart of an otherwise furnace-like landscape. The meal was mainly a semi-circle of homegrown steak, large enough that I had to pry a hubcap off a Packard in the parking lot to accommodate it.

 1935 Packard (with hubcaps)

The table for beverages was separate, manned (if that's the word I want) by a cadre of tiny 4-H-ers who offered everyone a cup of cold drink - "did you want water? - or tea?" - poured it out, then carried it to your place at the table for you. All through the meal they plied the crowd steadily, like flies in a feedlot, with pitchers of the same - "did you have water? - or tea?" A nice boxed wine, I thought, might have made the livestock bidding to come a bit more brisk.

Four-H livestock auctions, a feature of every county fair, are a way farm kids raise money to finance their animal-rearing ventures and learn the business of animal husbandry. Local businesses bid on the animals, their designated bidders gamely raising the stakes as parents and grandparents conspire against them. Four-H parents are the rural equivalents of suburban Little League or soccer parents, except that since everyone is a neighbor and there's actually money involved they seem much kinder and less grim about it. It's a low-stakes game in which everyone knows one another and understands the rules. I was there to buy any animal that was affordable because the company I work for does business in the county and has always been a good local citizen.

After everyone had eaten and I'd threatened a table of county commissioners and feedlot owners (acquaintances all) that I was only there to drive up the stakes, everyone ambled out to the auction shed, got settled in the metal bleachers, listened to the litany of thank yous from the county agricultural officer, and then the chicken auction commenced. Not poultry - chickens. After one round of chicken bidding I heard a deep whisper behind me (no lie) - "I tell ya, if I was a kid I wouldn't shed a tear over a $600 chicken." I thought, if chickens are bringing that much, what will the beef bring?

I never figured that one out. Fortunately, my friends Katy and Kevin were there as interpreters, cultural emissaries and consiglieres. Their successive generations of offspring have shown and sold 4-H livestock in two milennia and they are versed in the finer points of bidding, judging, buying, selling and raising it. After the chickens were all sold, the rules of calculation became arcane - beef was auctioned "by the hundredweight," which meant some calculation based on the current market value, which dictated the convenient figure of $1.07 per pound as the base price, and (I think) the serious bidders started from there - most of the year and a half old steers were 1400 pounds plus, so add $400-$800 to that).

Pig bidding was different yet (never figured that out either). The pigs on offer displayed some considerable personality, as they were the only animals not haltered and had generally been raised by small humans, who stood only twice as high as their backs and whom they outweighed by a factor of about five. The wee folk control (if that's the word I want) their pigs kindly, with a pointy rod like a long whippy riding crop, but the pigs spend their time either heading back for the chute they entered or trotting for the farther chute they seem to recognize as an exit. They either ignore the auctioneer's vastly amplified machine-gun staccato and loiter along the runway to investigate, or become rapid and agitated and head for the nearest visible exit, which (they generally seem to realize without prompting) may be behind them. They out-man (if that's the word I want) their young handlers with the insouciance that comes of possessing both bulk and brains (occasionally a human attribute as well in the evolutionary scheme of things).

 "Perfectly serious, kid - just tell me what you'd like me to do, heh heh."

Kevin and Katy's three-year-old is already famous for showing his pig, Howdy, at 4-H events, as he forsakes the show routine for domestic familiarities, riding Howdy literally piggy-back around the arena. He's only three, but some of the judges take show protocol more seriously than do Howdy and his young handler.

Finally came the goats. Given my meager corporate livestock stipend, Kevin figured the goats were budget paydirt. So, prompted by his whispering "Hold it up!" I held up my numbered bidder's card and bought the first goat from a young lady named Cheyenne for "Four hun-ned dol-lahz!" Which was not quite as much as I had to spend, and which I quickly learned translated as four dollars per pound of goat. As it was an 88-pound goat, I spent about $350 of the company's hard earned money ($400 X .9 = ~$350). I just surrendered the remaining $150 of my allowance at customs.

 "Heerd you was holdin' money fer me."

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Summer in Kansas: The Lower Depths

How did this happen? I forsook those 100-degree days on the Colorado Front Range (elev. 6214) for 110-degree days in the lower altitudes (elev. 3237). 

In short, my retirement was curtailed by the importunings of my previous employers, who have reassigned me to a former reassignment, persuading farmers and ranchers in southwestern Kansas to do what I ask them to do and like it. When they do, it's mainly because they like me as much as they like the idea of having a wind farm in the neighborhood.

Strange to admit that I've left the mountain fastnesses, the trout streams turgid with mid-summer melt, and the fragrant ponderosa slopes for the desert and its cottonwood oases, but I can't say I ain't happy about it. Summer in Kansas is no picnic (more on picnics in a moment), but the lovely montane passes of Colorado are clogged with the usual extravagant toilet barges . . .

"Ten miles an hour - I swear they're barbequeing . . ."

. . . and hefty tourist couples plundering the outlet malls like modern-day pirates. Freedom isn't free, as current wisdom goes.

( . . . and don't forget America's retailers.)

But when I got back to the hotel in Garden City, I found Curtis and the two Jakes, the company's field crew, having dinner in the bar and - handshakes and felicitations all around - it was as though I'd never retired. I've worked with the locals here for over two years, and I've always stayed in Garden City because it's the only city between Wichita and Denver, which even in the day of interstate auto travel is a bit of a yawner (and not counting Dodge City as a real city, which no one does unless for its mediocre state-run "gambling facility" which you may remember more easily as a casino). Garden City has a single hotel with the only decent restaurant in town, and air conditioning that works unfailingly, which you really need to depend on in a Kansas summer.

"Whichever asshole booked me into Liberal is dead."

But I've moved my operating base south to Ulysses, where the desert begins or ends (hard to say), and where the bright lights go off at 9 p.m. 

 Ulysses, ca.1929 and still about the same

Towns in Kansas all have the green highway signs at the city limits, listing elevation (which never changes). The population remains unstable, the steadily perishing old white folks being replaced at an uneven rate by Mexican-Americans (and a few of their relatives who are often just Mexicans simpliciter, but are more than willing to do the nasty work that's available out here). In any case, signs listing elevation rather than population are a more responsible use of municipal funds.

Still, Kansas has its charms, believe it or not. I see and hear things out here I rarely see and hear anywhere else, like the meadowlarks in the mornings, or the mockingbirds and the brown thrashers speaking long conversational arias in the treetops, or scissor-tailed flycatchers on barbed-wire fences hawking bugs in the midday heat . . . 

. . . sandpipers, yellow-legs, killdeers and long-billed curlews stalking tilled fields for grubs and hoppers, eastern and western kingbirds together on fence lines, kestrels diving for meadowlarks that outbulk them, the red-eyed Mississippi kites as thick as crows on utility lines along the roads, a hovering Swainson's hawk at last outdone by fewer than a half-dozen territorial blackbirds, a vulture picking at a dead rattlesnake in someone's driveway, old pickups smoking along dusty county roads carrying a spikey payload of long-horned Watusi cattle skulls, or just parked along the highway, a derelict cell phone ringing on the passenger's seat while the driver has a cold beer at Good Times . . .

So I have a different routine now that I'm in the countryside. There just isn't an eating place left in Ulysses that I'd want to frequent on a regular basis. The best restaurant in town burned down from a grease fire not long after I arrived and the owners decided to leave it, burned and down. It's a metaphor for southwestern Kansas in a way, and I don't like it but I can't fault them for giving up a losing battle.

So I buy a sandwich and park my old Toyota pickup in the local park, where I can watch the herons sail over the lake and the kingbirds harass each other in the cottonwoods. The young Mexicans from town come and play volleyball on the sand - they pull their pickup trucks to the water's edge and tune their radios to the same station. 

 Only in my Mexican dreams

While I sit in the picnic pavilion with my Subway sandwich I can hear them rallying one another, and the music on their truck radios - the lilting, harmonious music of Mexico, pleasant enough on the evening air until, like popular music everwhere, it inevitably turns monotonous. But it sounds like I'm at home in a changing American landscape, where the irrigation wells are drying up, wheat is no longer easy to grow, where everyone will eventually figure out how to get along and find something else to do.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Do It 'til It Hurts (Pt. III): The Tour de France

I'm guessing that the Tour was decided earlier today on l'Alpe d'Huez, when Andy Schleck, coming off yesterday's "epic" stage victory, translated a 15-second deficit into a 53-second adavantage over his brother, Frank, in second place. Thomas Voeckler finished three minutes down at 20th in the stage, and is now more than two minutes off the lead. In a reprise of his 2004 Tour, Voeckler kept the yellow jersey for 10 race days.

 Schleck in the lead, Col du Galibier (Stage 19)

The only thing that might change the outcome now is the third man, Cadel Evans, who at just under a minute off Schleck's pace, could pull off an amazing time trial and unseat the evident winner. Frank Schleck and Evans are both within striking distance of the yellow jersey, but Frank will not be the man to take it. His official role is as Andy's domestique, the lesser of the Schleck duo - even though his showing in this race had been stronger than his brother's until stage 19, which as I said was epic enough to get Eddy Merckx onto the podium with Andy in a rare appearance.

I'm not a betting man, but I'd bet on the family dynamics here (were I a betting man I'd have bet on Thomas Voeckler, but mainly out of sentiment rather than good sense, which is why I never gamble for money). The results to date are amazing - Andy made history with his attack on stage 19, 60 km remaining in the stage and two climbs beyond categorization left to go. Equally epic has been his determination on the descents, where he left his trepidation behind, reversed a pattern of timid descending to gain four minutes on the field at one point in the stage. It was mainly Evans, in a nearly solo effort to pursue, who saved the small pursuit group the embarrassment of having been so badly outpaced.

Still, we like races to go to the final stage (meaning tomorrow's time trial, not the ceremonial ride into Paris). We don't necessarily want to know in advance that the guy in second place won't suddenly jump and go for first. Drama happens only when blood is at stake, as when Saturn devours his own children . . .

"Don't watch."

 . . . or when we think Cain is at least willing to clobber Abel (even if he doesn't). If the Schlecks were Italians and Verdi were a modern-day journaliste du sport, there might be an opera in this Tour (maybe "Cain e Abel").

The Counterfactual Schleck Brothers
(Think about it, Frank)

Thomas Voeckler, Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers have made this a memorable Tour de France. And though it's probably all over but the shouting, I for one am glad that Cadel is still in it. Any one of the three has shown enough grit to stand on the top step of this year's podium in Paris.

UPDATE July 23: Cadel Evans did indeed ride a strong 42.5 km time trial today to take the yellow jersey from Andy Schleck, allowing him but a single day to wear it. Cadel finished 7 seconds behind Tony Martin's best time and leads the field by over a minute and a half. At the end of tomorrow's (largely ceremonial) stage, Cadel will have won the Tour. CadelMageddon is upon us.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Do It 'til It Hurts (Pt. II): The Tour de France

Let me begin with apologies by plunging your heads into a cold cliche: this is turning out to be a Cinderella Tour. 

Meaning that Thomas Voeckler has worn the yellow jersey since Stage 9 (stage 17 ran earlier today). Riding safely through the crashfest in stage 8, he changed the race from a one-second duel between race leader Thor Hushovd and Cadel Evans that had lasted over several stages, since nearly the July 2 start of the Tour. Coming from 19th place, a minute and a half behind, Voeckler established himself nearly two minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and another half-minute ahead of Evans in third.

Voeckler is an Alsatian, a Frenchman with a German name pronounced (at least by the eternal race announcer Phil Liggett, a bellwether of how not to pronounce anything) 'Voh-kler.' I would have said 'Veh-kler,' but I only know three German words as it is - Schloss Vollrads, spatlese, auslese and trockenbeerenauslese. Well, four German words. Oh, and riesling. So I'm no authority either, except I can pronounce 'Liggett,' which I think is Australian for something you do after you've burglarized a beer warehouse. (The French say 'veau-clair.')

Voeckler is the Cinderella of the Tour on several counts. For starters, the Tour, which in France is something equivalent to the Super Bowl being played on the Fourth of July, has not been won by a Frenchman since 1985, when the great Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour (the following year he stood second on the podium to Greg Le Mond, the first American ever to win).

Bernard Hinault

Voeckler, in the Zen-like tradition of Jacques Anquetil, leads the field without having won a single stage in this race. Unlike the stolid Anquetil, however, Thomas is known for his stigmata, the visible signs of his suffering, most notably a magnificently beefy tongue springing like the Holy Spirit from his visage.

'Je souffre.'

He has worn the yellow jersey before, in the 2004 Tour, when he became a minor hero of the French public. Expected to hold the lead for only a day against the all-devouring Armstrong, he held on for a remarkable 10 days before surrendering the jersey to the eventual victor.

This time around, Voeckler has dazzled a field of cautious riders, using his instincts as an animateur - the one who attacks, breaks up the rhythm of the peloton, strings out the leaders with unexpected sorties, keeps the field unsettled and watchful - to maintain his lead.  Still, he defies the American ethos of Stephen Covey's highly effective and therefore habitually happy people. "I don't believe for even one second that I can win the Tour," Voeckler told the cycling press after a few days in yellow. "I think my chances are zero." How could you hate the guy? The French aren't listening, of course, but I'm sure someone tried to warn them before the Battle of the Somme. Which could be Cadel Evans, or it could be Alberto Contador.

What makes Voeckler's current ascendency even more compelling is that it upsets the dispensation of the world according to the cycling media. No one could have predicted his sudden jump from 19th place to the front of the standings - better yet, he doesn't look or sprint like the brash Mark Cavendish (four stages in this Tour to Voeckler's zero, but two hours back in slot 124), he is neither of the Schleck brothers who get a lion's share of attention in race coverage. He doesn't think for a minute that he'll win this Tour, he never probably thought much about standing on the podium before last week. He just rides his bike.

Contador has already won three Tours and this year's Giro d'Italia. His fortunes in the early stages have been poor (crashes, mostly) but he is coming back stronger. He could win it again, which would be fine with me. And Voeckler already knows that he faces a tough time in the remaining mountain stages. He gave up over 20 seconds today over tough climbs, so his margin has slipped to about 80 seconds, with five stages remaining to ride.

But right now I'm voting for the Frog.

"Cheri, 'ev you seen may glass sleepurz?"

UPDATE, July 21: Stage 18 is the hardest stage of the Tour with three climbs beyond categorization. On the final climb, Andy Schleck attacked early on the Col d-Izoard, held on over Col du Galibier to win the stage, and leaves Thomas Voeckler with a scant 15-second lead. Thomas himself rode amazingly to hold onto the yellow jersey. The standings have been shaken up considerably - Andy's brother Frank Schleck is in third, Contador is a distant seventh place, more than four minutes off the leader. No chance for Contador this year.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Murdoch Touch

I had speculated recently, in the glibly frivolous vein that inevitably presages disaster, that I might either be or be about to be of some interest to the FBI. It was not Hoover's lackeys I should have feared, however, rather the faceless minions* of Rupert Murdoch who have almost certainly hacked my cellphone. 

A Murdoch minion
This may appear to be one too many cries of 'wolf' from Miguel. But, as the game is up for Murdoch and his evil empire, as all the king's men are unveiled and their vile stratagems brought to the light of day, I am certain that my cellphone was hacked by the likes of Andy Coulson, Clive Goodman, and Glenn Mulcaire. How do I know this?

Fact 1A: Goodman had illicit access to sensitive phone conversations among aides to the royal family. Snippets of intimate conversations (such as one between Princes Harry and Andrew) have appeared verbatim in the British tabloids. 

Fact 1B: I have publicly claimed descent from several of the royal houses of Europe, including the Houses of Bourbon, Yquem de Montaigne, Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, Stuart, Stewart, Stuert, Stowert (depending on which credit card I'm using), Halsingland und Gastrikland, to name a few; also claimed direct descent from their Royal Highnesses Bela II and Stephen V of Hungary, Edward II of England, Louis IX of blessed memory, Henri IV of Navarre and Clancy of Ireland, among others. 

(To a polite and discriminating readership, a man's legitimacy or b*st*rdy are neither subjects of proper conversation nor deserving of scrutiny amongst confidants. Enough that my royal pretensions and my wineseller's receipts by themselves place me unquestionably within the precincts of royalty.)

Uneasy lies the head with the little round jug

Fact 2A: Mulcaire admitted to hacking the cellphone of Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers Association. Professional Sport was decidedly on Murdoch's radar. 

Fact 2B: I have previously written of professional cycling in these pages. Among some of my circle, I am considered a cognoscento of the sport. I have made light of 'Cipo' (albeit not to his face); I know the proper pronunciation of 'Team Leopard Trek.' Admittedly, cycling is not football, and I am well aware of the differences: you see, in professional cycling young men wear very tight lycra uniforms, spend half their time looking out for traffic and the other half taking drugs, while in football very beefy men wear very tight lycra uniforms, spend half their time lying on top of one another, half their time slapping one another sur leurs derrieres, the third half taking drugs, and the final half using handguns in nightclubs. I am, in short, enough of the professional sportif to qualify for the technological attentions of Messieur Mulcaire.

"Uhhh . . . wrong ball, Ben."

Fact 3A: Mulcaire admits to hacking the phones of former members of Parliament. 

Fact 3B: While this seems to me the least fruitful line of investigative journalism anyone could imagine, still I suppose one does what one must do to keep up the appearance of doing a job properly. And while I have no pretensions to enter the august sessions of Congress in this life, the fact remains that I have influence with power. My inalienable droit de suffrage at the local polls has won me the ear of my own Representative, The Honorable Doug Lamborn, which you will have noticed is missing from its normal place alongside his head.

Doug Lamborn, R-CO 
(courtesy Rocky Mountain Taxidermy)

It seems a fair question to ask what the Murdoch organization might hope to learn from my phone conversations that would titillate a nation and sell newspapers. That's more than I know, or at least (to preserve my cachet) more than I'll say. Say only I was hapless collateral damage, a bug on the Murdoch windshield, an innocent casualty in a global hacking sweep. 

In the final analysis, of course, we are back to Square One - there is only one agency in the world with any possible interest in my secrets. The check will bounce, of course, but by then the FBI will already have whatever scant information it requires to dispatch their minions*.

* I want to thank Newt Gingrich for the return of the word 'minions.'

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bull We Can Believe In

". . . [B]e the next Jesus, the next Buddha, or even the next L. Ron Hubbard. Sign up now to create-your-own religion. . . . There are 7 billion people out there who need something to believe, bring out your inner missionary and get converting!"

                                          - Huffington Post's "Create Your Own Religion Competition" 

As if the Huffington Post's create-a-religion competition weren't enought to turn one's idle mind to thoughts of the Ineffable, the current news is rife with prophets (prophets trump missionaries) who are doing just that - not to mention others for whom recent events have taken such a creative turn that they might, with a little thought, inspire a fervent flock of sympathetic practitioners.

Take one Nico Alm, the Pastafarian who has successfully appealed to the Austrian authorities to wear his divinely-sanctioned headgear for his driver's license photograph. (I say "the Pastafarian" advisedly, as I believe Nico is the only one, which renders "a Pastafarian" inapt here.) Nico has a serious point to make by insisting that a spaghetti strainer is the sign of his religious fealty which, like a burkha or a crucifix, he should be granted liberty to display under any circumstance. (I'm not suggesting that this also gives him license to shout "Pasta!" in a crowded theater. I'm also not suggesting that his legal theater adds any sheen of legitimacy or seriousness to old-fashioned, serious-minded atheism.)

 Nico the Pastafarian

I'll allow that Nico may be the first self-proclaimed Pastafarian, not being up on my ecclesiastical history, but (just as a footnote in the interests of accuracy and creative primacy) he's not the first to have adopted the symbolism and liturgical appurtenances of the faith, as this 1993 photograph of a friend's young son attests.


Religious observances can take the strangest of forms (I'm guessing the Lord removed the left arm of the celebrant [photograph below] in another such rite) . . .


Nico merely insisted that he be photographed on a government instrument - his driver's license - wearing the sanctioned garb of his preferred religion. It isn't like he was a Texan demanding to handle water moccasins, or a U.S. citizen petitioning for his right to be photographed with his sacred bong.  Although, speaking of controlled substances in worship, Section 1307.31 of the Code of Federal Regulations allows that "The listing of peyote as a controlled substance . . . does not apply to the nondrug use of peyote in bona fide religious ceremonies of the Native American Church, and members of the Native American Church so using peyote are exempt from registration." 

Which brings me to Red Bull . . . 

Not a religious observance (yet)

 . . . which is not yet a controlled substance - but that could change. Recent legal history now includes among its shady annals the "Red Bull Defense." A Florida man was recently found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the smothering death of his own father, the perpetrator sleep-deprived and totally caffeine-buzzed on Red Bull at the time.

One can only imagine a wave of fist-bumping "Works for me!" toasts in supper clubs, pubs and lounges across the nation wherever Bud Light is proudly served - the beginnings of a groundswell of like-minded sentiment and tribal sympathies. With a modicum of imaginative effort, this resurgence of simpatico might be parlayed into a caffeine-fueled religious revival - call it "The Great Awakening". Admittedly, two red bulls on the logo does not suggest standard monotheism, but monotheism is arguably overrated . . . 

(Nothing personal - just used the wrong turn of phrase.)

. . . what with too many ways to get it wrong and too many people who think they've got it right. No, I think it might be time to revive the old Manichean cosmology - Good Bull, Bad Bull so to speak. That opens up a few more options and simplifies the rules at the same time; you know which Bull to choose and which one not to choose. Then, if you end up at the stake, you can always say it was the caffeine.

We all need something to believe in.

Make mine corporate caffeine

Friday, July 15, 2011

Descartes Among the Beasties

"Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant."
       - David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Bk. I, Sect. xvi, "Of the reason of animals")

I have just now returned from a sojourn in the Colorado hinterlands, where I spent most of a week living in my camper truck . . . 

My camper

. . . and riding my bicycle in the mountains . . .

 My bicycle (and my pink cycling cap)

. . . taking a much-needed respite from the duties of a semi-professional blogister. But, as much of the cultural and anthropological elucidation, assorted lucubrations, exfoliations, verbal excrescences, imbroglios, farragoes, broadsides, bastinadoes and general high jinks in which I engage myself take their source from the foibles of my fellow humans, I was left pretty much with my own thoughts for dinner, and what company I could find among the woodland denizens. I generally avoid the unsuspecting people who happen to be camped at whatever campground I wander into, not wishing to drive over whatever sofas, gasoline powered recreational accoutrements, or semi-detached auto parts they may have brought from home . . . 

. . . not much interested in their attempts to ignite fireworks purchased with hard-won food stamps on their latest trip to Arkansas, wishing only to applaud from a tasteful distance their heartfelt attempts to either decapitate or abandon their offspring, and possessed as I am of an intense foreboding where more than two or three dogs are gathered together . . .

And so it was in a feeling of tribal affection, and as the animals I encountered were noticeably making a study of me, I decided to make a study of them. For my own part, at least, it proved a congenial and enlightening exchange. 

My first inkling that I was being observed with any interest came on my first bicycle outing. I had ridden one morning down the mountain to the nearest town and was on the return side of a loop, riding along a quiet dirt road that led back up the mountain. A few miles into the forest, I noticed movement in a small creek drainage running along a meadow beside the road, stopped to investigate, and noticed a full spread of antlers and the haunches of an elk retreating quietly into the trees. I watched, and a second set of antlers followed the first up the slope. After a moment, the first bull peeked out from behind the tree he had just circled, then the second one peered around, both intent on what I was doing. 

As we peered at one another, a third set of antlers, then a fourth and a fifth came up out of the creekbed, circled the tree and gathered behind the first pair to inspect me. After that, antlers kept rising from the undergrowth, circling the tree, filing up behind one another to stare. The various antlers were by now indistinguishable as belonging to separate animals - an indistinct tangle among the tree branches. In an instant the lead bull had seen enough and moved on up the slope into deep woods, followed in single file by seven others, each with a full spread of antler.

I realized then that they had all been riveted, as I was, the same helpless curiosity that killed the cat. The following night I camped at a solitary spot in the montane desert at a campsite which also, I discovered the next morning, was the favorite haunt of a little fringe-toed lizard who lived in the rocks around the fire ring. For the most part of a morning he was content to keep an eye on me and a safe distance, sunning himself on a rock and dodging a gaggle of insistent magpies whose lack of breeding and general want of discretion compensated for the absence of other campers. 

I generally do not pay much attention to lizards, figuring that any attachment on my part will be dashed by an errant roadrunner or the constitutionally dispassionate nature of the reptilian mind. As it was, the heat of the day made me content to sit in the shade of a nearby juniper and watch the lizard as the lizard watched for incautious flies and kept the occasionally back-turned eyesocket trained on me. As it turned out, the juniper as well as the fire ring was evidently his territory, for at some point, overcome by some tender emotion, the overflowing of a generous mind, a territorial yearning, the joy of discovery or the unaccountable wish for a frantic sortie across a lizard-esque no-man's-land, he made a mad dash for the juniper whose shade I was enjoying, stopped in his tracks and abruptly turned toward my nearby foot, made a cursory investigation, and dashed up the juniper trunk at the near approach of a magpie. 

Lizards, leaving aside for the moment those employed in the insurance industry, are neither particularly cute nor endearing . . .

. . . still, I couldn't help but feel a fleeting affection for having the acknowledgement of one living thing to another. 

The next day I moved up into the montane pine woods where the felonious golden mantled ground squirrel (better known as the chipmunk) holds fearsome sway. This species is the scourge of campsites, tents, and food supplies; undeserving of succor or quarter, the clear winner in any evolutionary contest, the eventual victor in the struggle for survival. They are unrelenting beggars, unwittingly encouraged by edible handouts from witless campers.  This picture should hang in every post office in the land:

Having just now cursed the race of them, there I was, sitting in my chair amongst the ponderosas, watching one of them at a distance, dreading the moment when it would decide to beg for a handout. No such moment came - the creature went about his business, which seemed to consist mainly of running from one rock to another, perching on it, studying me, rummaging in a brushpile, returning to the same two or three perches, sitting and studying me some more - a monotonous life, it seemed to me, although I felt no pity nor twinge of fellow feeling for the little varmint, knowing it would soon enough try something on me.

It dawned on me, however, that it was eyeing me in the same abstract and studying manner in which I was watching it. It seemed to have no ulterior motives, never made a bid for my potato chips, and seemed with its evident academic interest to be fundamentally pure of heart. I softened toward the little fellow, admitted to myself that I may have misjudged it, silently made my apologies, and that was the end of the matter. Until, that is, it made the same mad dash across no-man's-land that the lizard had made a day earlier, circled around behind my chair, inspected me from a closer vantage, and apparently either satisfied with new information or having formed an adverse judgment, scampered back to its brush pile for a good professional rummage. 

"We are conscious, continues Hume in the same chapter, "that we ourselves, in adapting means to ends, are guided by reason and design, and that 'tis not ignorantly nor casually we perform those actions, which tend to self-preservation, to the obtaining pleasure, and avoiding pain. When therefore we see other creatures, in millions of instances, perform like actions, and direct them to the ends, all our principles of reason and probability carry us with an invincible force to believe the existence of a like cause [i.e., reason]."

It was Descartes who, needing to prove for considerations of religion the exceptionalism of humans, gave animals a bad name by denying them the capacity for reason. If the mind, he reasoned, is the seat of cognitive faculties like thinking and judging and perceiving; and if it is the mind that makes humans human; then it follows that the mind is the immortal soul. (Apparently the brain in this scenario is, like a tourist on a space shuttle, only along for the ride.)

It also followed for Descartes' dualism that animals don't have immortal souls (only people do) and therefore can't reason, can't think, can't make judgments (even about what is good and bad for them, or what will cause pleasure or pain), and can't perceive - can't even feel pain or pleasure. In fact, generations of natural scientists who subscribed to this view performed gruesome experiments in animal vivisection, secure in the mistaken belief that they were causing no pain.  

But the animals who observed me this week were clearly exercising the basic intellectual functions that have enabled their survival for the last few million years (and in the lizard's case it's anyone's guess how old that biological genome might be). They gather information by way of experience (as do we) and accumulate it in a catalog of what is good or bad (for them), what is to be sought or avoided, what is useful or not. They are, in their way, as studious and as curious as are the best of us humans. 

For the rest, fireworks will have to do.

As good as it gets (probably).

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Do It 'til It Hurts (Pt. I): The Tour de France

July is the only month in the year when I wish I owned a television; it's the month of the Tour de France. The Tour this year is 21 stages of finesse and bedlam in pretty much equal parts, some of the bedlam occuring in yesterday's stage 7 when a cluster of riders bunched and crashed about 25 km before the stage finish. A couple of riders abandoned the race with broken clavicles and the usual minor injuries; the 40-year-old American Chris Horner rode across the finish line in a concussed daze, nose broken, having no idea how far he'd ridden nor for how long.

 Bradley Wiggins, stage 7 and out

Consecutive early stages of narrow, sinewy roads, high winds, the flattish terrain encouraging sprints - all have combined to unsettle the field and keep a scant four second margin between the top three riders. Still, mild stuff compared with last year's edition, which had long stretches of the infamous cobbled pavé that caused several serious crashes. The cobbles were wet from summer rains. This has been going on for over a century.

Lothar Friedrich out of the Tour, 1957

A hilly stage today begins the mountain stages and the standings should change over the next few days. The sprinters will fall back in the standings for a while and the climbers will ride for the polka dot jersey, the King of the Mountains points.

 Fausto Coppi leads over Puy de Dome, 1952

To appreciate the traditions of the Tour you have to accept certain intractible facts in this uneasy marriage of concentrated, strenuous sport conducted within a barely contained donnybrook. It is beyond mention that riders get hurt every year in crashes; there are occasional fatalities, most recently in the Giro d'Italia in May, when a young Belgian fell 65 feet over a bank while descending in the mountains. Collisions with spectators are infrequent but not rare occurences, and more than a few errant souls have been sent on their Eternal Way by team vehicles (see Tour update below). Even the motorcycles of the press corps have been known to sail over an embankment, carrying the motorcyclist and a journaliste du sport into the same Abyss. But in France, to be numbered among the faithful means to be a cycling fan anyway, so there is a certain canonical propriety in such a demise.

There's a 'Jesus' to root for in every Tour

It isn't "Sturgis on Bikes," but crowd etiquette is not always quaint - and there are crowds
everywhere. International travel being what it is, the difference now is between the occasional cooling douse from a well-meaning voisin wielding a bucket . . .

Louison Bobet gets a dousing, 1955

and countless economy-class tourists from Brisbane, Boston, Bozeman, Barcelona, Bogota, Bucharest, Buenos Aires and Bora Bora . . . 

Adding to the press of the crowds is the press of numerous team vehicles following the riders, dispensing food, water and instructions. In the rowdy 1990s, the team cars were often virtual arsenals of pharmaceutical aids. Nowadays, keeping your drugs in the team car is like hiding your money under the mattress. Tom Boonen is currently sitting out the Tour for a positive cocaine test earlier this spring. (I thought coke was legal in Belgium, but the Grand Tours are their own countries.)

Doping has been a Tour staple almost since the first Tour in 1903. It seems to be on the wane these days, particularly with some high-profile trials pending, though as I've remarked before there have always been drugs in the Grand Tours, from a little champagne in the water bottle to pure rocket fuel. It's one topic that doesn't merit any further moralizing - if it is a vice, it's only because of the money that the Grand Tours have attracted.

The water handoff in former days was a literal moment that also gave a temporary boost to the local economy. Toss the empty, holster the full one, keep pedalling . . .

All the riders wear helmets now, but the mandatory helmet rule was not enforced by the UCI (the governing body) until 2003, when a Kazakh rider, Andrei Kivilev, fell and died in the Paris-Nice that year. The last Tour fatality was also a head injury - Fabio Casartelli fell while descending the Col de Portet d'Aspet in the 1995 Tour. The requirement for helmets (to my mind, at least) also marked the death of Tour fashion.

Ferdi Kubler, hot day, 1950

So here's to another July and another Tour. May it roll on forever.

Leave the kids, bring the wine.

 UPDATE: 07/09/2011

In Saturday's Stage 9, Alexandre Vinokourov, always a podium contender, American Dave Zabriskie and two Belgian riders crashed out on a turn, Vinokourov going down the embankment and ending his professional career by fracturing his pelvis and thigh. In another incident, 2010 Tour winner Alberto Contador went down after catching another rider's wheel in a crowd. And finally, a French television car took out two riders, Flecha and Hoogerland, swerving to avoid a tree along the roadside. Both were able to continue, Hoogerland only after extracting himself from the barbed wire fence into which he was unceremoniously flung. It even hurts to watch it, but enjoy it here with French commentary.