You’ve heard all the bromides.
Live each day like it’s your last.
Today’s the first day of the rest of your life.
Life is short/Life is a gift
And we promise ourselves that we’re not just going to hear these things, but we’re going to hear them. Make changes. Stop wasting time watching regular season baseball games, or Lifetime movies. Call friends and family more often. Use one’s body and exercise more often before the body betrays you and you can’t do the things you used to do.
Along the same lines, there are so many fascinating people in the world – people you intend to learn more about. Some you do. Most you don’t.
*For example, I’m still haunted that I never sat down and really visited with Bob Schotz.
A few months back, I was interviewing Don Bright, then running for Inyo County District Four Supervisor, and he told me that Claiborne Mitchell, Independence resident and KIBS fixture, was very sick and that I ought to interview her before she wasn’t around to interview anymore.
So what did I do?
Procrastinated for about five months until I finally tracked her down.
Got her number and we set a time to meet at her home in Independence. She told me to bring a few bottles of La Marca prosecco (which they carry at Smart and Final) with me.
And it was only then that I learned that I had no business speaking with Claiborne.
Because she was given 2-4 months to live in July, 2020.
And it would have been a tragedy for me to miss our conversations. Plural.
Claiborne’s life story is not built for one sitting.
Ten sittings wouldn’t be enough.
Because you see, interviewing Claiborne is like embarking on a grand scavenger hunt. You think you know a basic fact (Claiborne’s a Brit. She has the accent.) until she’ll tell you she was born in South Carolina and lived in the States until the age of seven and has carried an American passport her entire life.
And sometimes, she’ll be brutally honest. Other times, evasive and opaque. One moment, you’re doubled over in stitches. Next moment, rocked with sadness.
How can a person this vibrant be on the verge of checking out?
“I’ve already written my own obituary,” she says. “It’s liberally sprinkled with words like kind, generous and funny.”
Then she laughs. And takes another sip of prosecco. I take one, too. She tosses more birdseed to the chickadees. It’s 10 a.m.
I should ask her to speak Italian. That’s one of three foreign languages she knows. French, Spanish and Italian. She says, “My Italian depends upon my prosecco intake.”
Moving to the Sierra
It was about 15 years ago. Claiborne had just put on a pre-Oscar event for Elton John and had a ten-day window before she had to return to L.A.
So she and a friend (true to Claiborne’s opacity, we never learn of the nature of this friendship or whether said friend is male or female) decide to drive up to Lake Tahoe.
Around Mojave, Claiborne falls asleep in the passenger seat.
When she wakes up, the first thing she sees is the old school Mt. Williamson Motel vacancy sign.
“It was like I awoke out of a dream. I saw the sign and simply said, ‘We have to stay there.’”
She wakes like a child on Christmas morning, to discover deep snow on the ground. She walks out into the sage, stares up at the mountains, and … ditches Tahoe to spend the whole ten days at the Williamson, staying to explore.
Within four months, she’d moved to Independence.
She arrived right before the “soft-opening” of the Lone Pine Film Museum. She was contacted (once her experience with event production became known) when there were nine days left to outfit a 10,000-square foot space.
She did so with key help from Kerry Powell, Dorothy Bonnefin, Elsie Ivey and a host of other volunteers. “We sort of put everything up with wood and rope.” It worked.
She then recalls being asked to ride in the Film Festival parade. Claiborne had to be talked into it. She hadn’t ridden in decades.
Jennifer Roeser made sure she had the most docile of horses to ride.
And then, irony of ironies, Roeser’s horse began bucking during the parade. Claiborne recalls Roeser asking Kathy Bancroft for help. And Bancroft, a good friend of Roeser’s, replying, “Nah. I’m having too much fun [watching this].”
Friends good-naturedly busting on each other. This was Claiborne’s kind of place.
Roeser enlisted Claiborne to pull forward to lead. Crisis averted.
Later, Claiborne worked for a season for Roeser at the McGee Creek Pack Station.
But during her 15 years here, KIBS has been Claiborne’s thread. “I love my Americana,” she says. For many years, she hosted a country music program in the afternoons.
There were other jobs, of course. Notably, she did a stint working dispatch for the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, where she gained a great appreciation of former Sheriff Bill Lutze. “Bill wasn’t about power,” she says. “He was about serve and protect.”
When I arrived for our first visit in Independence, Claiborne was outside sitting her back door, overlooking her small backyard and the mountains beyond to the west. She was rolling a cigarette.
“As long as I can roll a cigarette, I’m okay,” she said. “If I can’t roll a cigarette, take me to the E.R.”
The irony, of course, is that smoking isn’t what’s going to kill her. Drinking either.
“My lungs are great. My liver’s great. I’m strong as an ox.”
But … she noticed last spring that she was having trouble with her left hand, working the controls on the KIBS motherboard. “My hand wasn’t behaving. I couldn’t work the panels properly.” So one night, she calls a friend in the medical profession and describes her symptoms.
The friend replies, “You should be in the E.R.”
So that’s where she went. Quickly followed by a flight to Reno. And then the death sentence (brain cancer). “I’ve been given my papers,” she says.
Lunch: You’re remarkably sporting about it.
Claiborne: Why rail against it? Rather, I’ve decided to lean into it. I can still engage. I have knowledge of my own death and yet I’m 100% present. So much laughter and so many tears [in this backyard over the past six months] … I wish there was more of a conversation around death, as well as appreciation, gratitude. Live as if you’re gonna get hit by a bus tomorrow, which I have been.
Claiborne then shifts the focus to others – which is her tendency. She says “being part of a team” has always been a thread through her life.
And Team Independence has responded in kind. “I’ve been so supported by this community. By the Civic Club. By people dropping off meals and fresh vegetables. By the Oak Creek Dispensary at Fort Independence comping CBD oil. By friends stopping by … “
Behind her, stuck to a fading tapestry, there is a small sign – it looks like a sticker. On one side it says “history.” On the other side, it says “risk.” Claiborne took this from her hospital bed, while she was in Reno in the maw of what she described as the Pharma/insurance/hospital conveyor belt.
“They wanted to keep me in an ornithological way,” she jokes, a play on oncology. She said no thanks to traditional medicine and to long-shot medical miracles.
“I wanted to die at home.”
Lunch: At the outset, when you got home, did you find yourself obsessing about your own physical decline?
Claiborne: Sure, but I got over that pretty quickly. I’m more accepting. Although right now, I’d trade a little dementia for a little mobility (laughs). One positive – I’ve really come to appreciate the fine points of the stars and the low-light pollution [in Independence].
Claiborne’s family has deep southern roots.
So how’d the English accent come about?
As a young girl, her father, an engineer for Cummins, was transferred to Brussels. That’s where Claiborne picked up her French.
She then attended boarding school in England for high school.
She never made it to college.
Post-high school, she decided to spend a year off, and moved to San Francisco, living in the Cable Car Hotel at California and Polk. She worked for Postal Instant Press, doing letterpress print and business cards.
Next stop was Barcelona, where she waitressed and modeled … and met two friends who started a concert promotion company. This was in the relatively new post-Franco (Spanish dictator from 1936-1975) era, and touring acts became interested in doing a Spanish leg.
And Claiborne was the only partner fluent in English.
So Claiborne shepherded the likes of B.B. King and Joe Cocker and Ray Charles and Ginger Baker around Spain.
Although Ginger Baker, says Claiborne, was a pain-in-the-ass.
Next stop was the Galapagos, where was recruited to be the social director of a 90-passenger cruise ship (“The Buccaneer”) which offered naturalist tours.
I stopped her there. What prompted these seemingly random moves all over the world?
“Love affairs,” she replied with a glint in her eye.
She was ultimately promoted to Purser when the previous Purser fell overboard in a drunken reverie (Pursers, said Claiborne, are notorious drunks).
When she left that job to return to England to work as an event producer and artist liaison, the Ecuadoran crew was sad to see her go.
As the Captain said fondly, “What I’ll miss … are your tits.”
You have to understand Claiborne’s tall and the average Ecuadoran not-so-tall. As Claiborne said with a laugh, “For them, my tits were at eye level.”
She has a daughter, Hayden, who lives in London. She describes Hayden as the “light of my life.”
She has a brother, Allston, who lives in Sevilla, Spain with his wife of forty years.
And most important, she has VGK.
Vast General Knowledge. That was a maxim she picked up at boarding school, which has always stuck with her.
You don’t acquire VGK via books, titles or degrees.
VGK is about breadth of experience, about risk, about placing oneself in novel situations. About greeting every next person one meets at face value.
Claiborne had this final observation about Americans, and it’s interesting that she used the third person to make it. An American herself and yet an outsider looking in.
“Americans take themselves so seriously, so earnestly. They’re so self-important and entitled. Consequently, they’re not open to a difference of opinion.”
Sounds like the average American would be well-served, once the pandemic lifts, seeing more of the world than the Disney version at Epcot.
The average American needs a little less safety and a little more Claiborne-inspired VGK.