Lives of the Rich and Infamous

I don’t “get” this country’s fascination with the rich and famous. Years ago, I spent a summer living with former in-laws at the top of Coldwater Canyon above Beverly Hills. On our outings, my beloved mother-in-law would elbow me and eagerly whisper, “Look, that’s Warren Beatty!”

Or whoever.

I couldn’t care less then. I still don’t now. It’s easy for me to obey the Aspen etiquette that calls for leaving celebs unrecognized and undisturbed, because, frankly, I’m not impressed.

After working for more than a decade in big-city public relations, I of course understand that the cult of celebrity is real, that if you want attention, few strategies work better than a celebrity endorsement. But I’m genuinely put-off by name-dropping. I wouldn’t cross the street to meet Kim Kardashian, who seems to be famous mostly for being famous and pretty… shallow!

That’s the rub. Popular culture’s fascination with the rich and famous extols shallowness. It celebrates exactly the wrong things: personal aggrandizement, conspicuous consumption, gold-plated greed. Too often, when media focuses on the rich, it’s also focusing on the infamous—people who profited by exploiting those less powerful, by damaging the shared resources of the earth or stealing from future generations.

Evidence of that is all around us: The West is riddled with thousands of abandoned mines, like the Gold King, poised to spew toxins into our rivers, even though those who profited from them have long since died. Computers are indispensible, but avalanches of toxic e-waste, the “effluent of the affluent,” are poisoning families in India, China and Lagos. Cheap, fashionable clothing is fun, but quite likely to have been produced by kids who are little more than slaves. (According to UNICEF, an estimated 158 million children worldwide, aged 5 to 14, are engaged in child labor, not counting domestic service. While kids work in mines, on farms and in brothels, a surprisingly high percentage of them produce textiles and clothing.)

While I can list a few billionaires who arguably earned their fortunes by doing something that benefitted mankind, and add others who later contributed megabucks to making the world a place where our children’s children’s children will want to live, that list is not long: Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, creators of the “Giving Pledge” which encourages the wealthy to give half of their net worth to philanthropy definitely make the list. Nationally, perhaps David Rockefeller, Eli Broad, George Soros, Ted Turner, Oprah and Michael Bloomberg would merit inclusion. Locally, philanthropist Jim Calaway makes the grade.

None of us is without sin, and I don’t mean to pick apart how these philanthropists made their money in the first place. I too have benefitted from the system: from being white, from being born in the U.S., from educated parents, from ancestors who emigrated here largely prior to 1800.

But I hold out the hope of change, of redemption, maybe even a survivable planet for coming generations. And I think that begins with celebrating the right things.

In a recent TED talk, Pope Francis said, “there is this habit, by people who call themselves ‘respectable,’ of not taking care of others, leaving behind thousands of human beings, or entire populations, on the side of the road… How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion…”

That hit home. I seldom want to read news about the astonishing medical advances being made—gene therapy that reverses blindness, bionic limbs, brain-implanted sensors that prevent seizures—because I fear that these therapies will be reserved for the wealthy and further widen the gap between the rich and poor. (Given the “health care” bills recently put forth in this country, which define “access” mostly in terms of ability to pay, that future may be only a year or so distant.)

Pope Francis called for us to overcome what he called a “culture of waste.” He applied that term not only to food and goods but primarily to “the people who are cast aside by our techno-economic systems which, without even realizing it, are now putting products at their core, instead of people.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has similarly said, “The stark economic inequalities of today’s world… are not only morally wrong, but sources of many practical problems, including war, sectarian violence, and the social tensions created by large-scale economic migration.” His conclusion: “Wealth should serve humanity, and not vice-versa.”

Maybe we could start by lionizing wealth that serves humanity, rather than mere ego?

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on May 18, 2017


Thoughts on Mothering

As a small child, I celebrated Mother’s Day like everyone else. But starting in junior high, things got complicated.

When I was nine, my parents split up. It was a dramatic blow up, and two years later, after being stalked by my dad, my mother moved from Colorado to California. She pretty much abandoned my brother and me, leaving us in our father’s custody. About a year after she left, I got a postcard saying that Myra had gotten remarried.

About a year after she left, I got a postcard saying that Myra had gotten remarried. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t been invited to the wedding. And I really couldn’t get over it.

I didn’t reconnect with Myra, my biological mother, until after college. We eventually became friends. A couple years ago, after Myra’s death, when we were dealing her affairs, I asked my brother Gene if he was feeling grief. His answer: “I miss her, but it’s not like she was MOM or anything.”

Because of those experiences, and also because I later chose not to have any children of my own, I have had to struggle with Mother’s Day. Hallmark’s images don’t resonate with my experience.

During my early teens, I didn’t have a mother. My surviving those years – the onset of puberty, my father’s violence and being bullied at school – owes a great deal to the tending and befriending I got from people other than my mother.

Psychologists have documented two different human responses to stress: the “fight-or-flight “response we all know about, and the “tend and befriend” response. Although evolutionary psychology theorizes that the tend-and-befriend strategy evolved as the typical female response to stress, while “fight or flight” is typically male, neither behavior is completely gender-defined. In other words, mothering behavior isn’t limited just to biological moms, or even just to females. It’s a coping response that helps both our young, and the human species, survive and evolve.

During my early teen years, as the child of an absent mother and an abusive father, I could have been called at “at risk” kid, had that term been invented then. My brother and I once ran away in sub-zero weather, and I often considered going to the Littleton courthouse and asking a judge to find some other family to adopt me.

During those hard times, my seventh-grade art teacher, Mrs. Anderson, offered me solo after-school art lessons, providing much more than clay and glaze. I planned suicide that year, but called it off at the last minute mostly because of my relationship with my art teacher, and because I didn’t want to leave my cat alone with my father. I don’t know if Mrs. Anderson ever knew how important her kindness, her willingness to listen and her encouragement were to me. But I’m here today to testify to that.

Later, I was befriended my stepmother, Elena. When I talk about “mom”, it’s usually Elena I’m not talking about, not my biological mother.

In my life, mothering has been less about a biological fact than a relational act.

Elena and her partner Jean.

When I was 11, Elena was one of my father’s multiple girlfriends. She phoned my father, Dick, one night when he was out on a date with another girlfriend – one that my brother and I didn’t particularly like. I tried to tactfully explain that Dick “wasn’t home” without saying why, but Elena quickly figured out the scenario. She rapidly interpreted the emotion in my voice and asked if I was scared.

At that time, Gene and I lived with my father in a somewhat rundown area of Littleton, near downtown. Once before, a prowler had tried to break into the house while we were alone. I scared the burglar off by turning the stereo up so loud that it was probably heard five blocks away. After that, we didn’t feel safe alone at night.

So when Elena offered to come get us, to take my brother and I out for a “date”, we didn’t say no.

She took us to the Top of the Rockies, and then to an art show at the Universalist Church in Denver. That was the start of a life-long relationship – two actually, if you count the church.

Later, Elena became my stepmother – and my true mom.

It was Elena who set my moral compass to true North, Elena who spent hours discussing with me how my behavior and decisions affect others and who got me involved with the UU youth group. It was Elena who modeled deep listening, kindness, and respect. Elena who served up special birthday dinners, encouraged my art and helped me find my voice. Some of that must also have stuck, because younger friends come to me asking for advice, and neighborhood kids have even adopted this old lady as a surrogate grandmother.

Listening, kindness, respect. Tending and befriending. That’s what mothering is about. You don’t have to be a mother to serve it up. You don’t even have to be female.

So happy Mothering Day to every teacher, doctor, psychologist, minister, camp counselor and sympathetic neighbor who has helped a child – and by extension human species – along the path to maturity and wholeness.


This piece was part of a Mother’s Day service at Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist Church on May 14, 2017.








Beating the High-Altitude Blues

“Send me kitty pictures. I’m seriously bummed by the news.”

I received that plea from a Facebook pal, and while I’m happy to post pet photos, I also find myself frequently giving advice to friends battling the blues. In brief, it is:

  • Go outside and get some sun.
  • Go exercise.
  • Meet a friend.
  • Plan something to look forward to.
  • Avoid alcohol.

Those suggestions aren’t from me, they’re medical advice from a Ph.D. psychotherapist at Kaiser-Permanente. I’ll call him “Doc.”

While living in San Francisco in my 40s, I suffered a major depression — one that felt like a 50-pound weight lodged on my chest, one that dimmed the lights and caused me to cry at the slightest provocation. I had a similar depressive bout as a teen.

When I finally sought help at Kaiser, I was advised to join a work-stress group, begin anti-depression meds and take a six-month class in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Doc taught the CBT course. Having suffered himself, he humorously observed that, as a teenager, he’d unwittingly hit on the perfect recipe for creating depression: He’d lock himself in his bedroom, pull down the shades, drink beer, avoid everyone and listen to Leonard Cohen records. (With recent controversy over the Netflix show “13 Reasons,” which is about bullying and suicide, it’s important to note that suicide is the third leading cause of death among those 10-14 and second among those 15-34.)

CBT is based on the principle that thoughts impact our feelings and actions. External events — jobs, relationships, politics, the news — are stressors and do play an important role. But we can moderate our responses to them by changing the way we think and care for ourselves. As Doc explained, emotions, physical health and social well-being form a triangle; our thoughts influence all three sides. Push on any side and it reshapes the whole triangle.

CBT worked amazingly well for me. I now rarely think about suicide (that, along with constant feelings of sorrow or emptiness, and losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, are common depression symptoms). I’m now mostly upbeat, despite living in one of the eight intermountain states sometimes called “the Suicide Belt.”

A couple of summers ago, while working at Eagle Crest Nursery, I was approached by an elderly couple wanting to return a carload of annuals. They apologetically explained that while there was nothing wrong with the plants, their daughter, who lived in Aspen and had purchased the annuals, had committed suicide. Stunned, I did all I could to help.

Aspen’s suicide rate is roughly three times the national average. As noted in a 2014 series on suicide published by the Post Independent, mountain resort communities often have a party lifestyle. “Many move here for that lifestyle with dreams of being a ski bum and living life as if it’s a permanent vacation,” the article explained. While many “move here to get away from problems they faced elsewhere,” that never happens. We all carry our issues along with us wherever we go.

High-altitude living may cause additional problems. As reported in LiveScience online, researchers at the University of Utah and Tufts University found that when exposed to high-elevation conditions, female rats exhibited more depression-like behavior. Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, the study’s lead author, noted that greater high-altitude suicide rates stemmed from multiple factors including “poverty, rural residence, low-population density, gun ownership and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disease.”

Since suicide rates are higher among young people, a youthful population also plays a role.

If you’re feeling seriously depressed, our area does have good sources of support: The Aspen Hope Center reaches out to residents both in Aspen and beyond. Mind Springs Health has locations in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle. Colorado Crisis Services is always available toll-free at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).

If you’re feeling down but not at the professional-help stage, my offhand-but-clinically-proven advice still stands: Turn off the TV. Put away the smartphone. Get off of social media. Take a hike in the sunshine, preferably with a friend. The reason: Clinical studies have found that regular exercise can be as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the antidepressants most prescribed for depression.

And kick it up a notch from kitten photos.

Contact with pets lowers blood pressure and can reduce depression. So take your dog for a walk. Or take your neighbor’s dog for a walk. Or volunteer at the local animal shelter. You can probably even post kitty photos for them. Litters of kittens were being born in Colorado around mid-March, and very soon, local shelters will be filled with hundreds of furry anti-depressants.

Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent May 17, 2017