If I Knew Then What I Know Now, You Wouldn’t Be Reading This Column

“Financial planning would be far simpler if we came stamped with an expiration date on the bottom.” Thus saith my financial planner.

True, that.

I have planned for my “golden years” with the goal of living until 90. But recently, I learned that I have a rare, fatal and untreatable ailment. It means that my expiration date will probably come long before 2042, the year I would have entered my ninth decade.

After initial consternation, I found I could greet the news of my mortality with an ironic gratitude: It means I don’t have to worry about outliving my money. I probably won’t spend many years alone, even though my spouse is two decades my senior. And now I’m actively working on my bucket list.

When the specialist named my malady, he initially said that “it was too bad” no one diagnosed the disease when its first symptoms showed up in 1981.

Not true.

Silence has been golden. What would it have been like, at 30, to learn that I had an incurable disease? One with a median survival time of 21.7 years? That knowledge would have been the elephant in the room during every decision of my adult life: deciding about marriage, about having children, about whether I should “come out” at work.

I can take this in stride at 66. I do understand that none of us gets out of here alive. I know that a likely expiration date has been stamped onto my genes from the moment I made my first entrance into this world.

Listening to the radio on my way to Canyonlands last week, I found myself resonating to a country song:

People always said, There ain’t no fish in there…
If I had known
I might have stopped fishing right then
It’s just as well we don’t know
When things will never be that good again…

If, at 30, I had known the identity of my probable assassin, it would have caused me great anxiety. Ironically, anxiety is the one thing I can point to as prompting the three rare bouts of illness I have experienced during 36 symptomless years.

This experience has prompted me to wonder about the impact of genetic testing. In a recent New York Times piece, columnist Pagan Kennedy noted that, in the next decade, blood tests will be able to reveal the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s in 30-40 year olds, long before symptoms appear. Kennedy writes about an online group of carriers of ApoE4, the gene that predisposes humans to Alzheimer’s, saying, “Many of the [group’s] members maintain their anonymity for fear of being “outed” as carriers of the gene variant. One member of the group — I’ll call her D. — told me that she feared public exposure almost as much as Alzheimer’s itself.”

D. has taken steps to safeguard her health, but keeps her genetic status secret. She’s afraid of being denied insurance. She fears social stigma. Because she’s a lawyer, she worries that she might lose clients if they knew what was written in her genes.

On its website, the National Institute of Health warns about the “emotional, social, or financial consequences” of genetic testing, noting that a “major limitation is the lack of treatment strategies for many genetic disorders once they are diagnosed.”

If you’re harboring something untreatable, how does it help to know?

Had my liver ailment been diagnosed when I was 30, the emotional consequences might have been severe. As the country song puts it, I might have stopped fishing right then. As an adult, I have lived through several bouts of serious depression, and knowing that I had an untreatable and fatal disease might have pushed me over the edge.

But by now, like Stephen Hawking, I have long outlived the probabilities. I know that the median — 21.7 years — is not the message. Even though my assassin wasn’t named back in 1981, doctors did know that I had some liver ailment. I did my best to control it by eating well, sleeping enough, exercising and avoiding alcohol.

Of course, “control” over one’s physiological destiny is somewhat of an illusion.

Our genes do predispose us to certain frailties, and when and whether we succumb isn’t entirely a matter of healthy habits: Euell Gibbons, an early advocate for a diverse plant diet, died from an aneurysm at 64. Baseball great Lou Gehrig died at 38 from the disease that now bears his name. NFL linebacker Junior Seau took his own life at the age of 43.

Still, this begs a question: If genetic testing could finger the assassin most likely to take you out, if it could reveal your expiration date, would you want to know?

 

Originally published in the Seeking Higher Ground  column, Sopris Sun, March 21, 2018.

An Olympic-Sized Miscalculation

Quick, name five statewide issues that need public funds.

Got it?

I bet that hosting the Olympics didn’t make your list.

Back in 1972, I voted against Colorado hosting the games — or more specifically, against the $5 million bond that was needed. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already awarded the 1976 winter games to Denver, and while planners were thrilled about the IOC’s decision, voters weren’t. That bond issue failed by a nearly 60-40 margin.

Recently, a “Winter Games Exploratory survey” popped up in my Facebook feed. Although it’s worded to register only positive reactions, comments are running strongly negative. After asking whether anyone could “share an Olympics that made money or broke even,” Jason Peck commented, “We need billions to fix transportation and water infrastructure, but hey, let’s blow it on a two-week event!”

Frankly, I was gobsmacked to see this issue pop up again after 42 years, and for locals’ sake, I’m glad to see Denverites trying to drive a stake through its un-dead heart. This holds big implications for mountain towns. I’m admittedly cranky about the fact that so many decisions get made on the Front Range — decisions that dry up our water supply and drive our health care costs through the roof — while we are alerted mostly by the sound of nails being driven into our coffins.

The current drive to revive the Olympics in Colorado is being pushed by an “exploratory committee” convened by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Following meetings in Denver that have been criticized for secrecy, the committee has sent out emissaries (Google Colorado Public Radio’s interview with committee co-chair Rob Cohen), launched a website and that slanted Facebook survey.

A few public meetings have also been slated. Reeves Brown, a “community engagement consultant” hired by the Exploratory Committee, gave a spiel to Eagle County commissioners earlier this week. (The webcast can be found at http://www.ecgtv.com, and comments can be left at http://www.sharingthegold.org).

I love the Olympics’ values: peace, international connection, sportsmanship. I’m proud that so many Roaring Fork and Colorado athletes rank with the world’s best. I’m glad the games remain among the few venues where money and power aren’t enough to decide the outcome. In the Olympics, the merits of courage, dedication and individual skill can still win the gold.

But I think that hosting in 2030 remains an Olympic-sized miscalculation for Colorado. Aside from our population and weather, not much has changed since 1972. Colorado’s economic and environmental issues remain the same, only worse, largely due to, um, population and weather.

In a blog about Olympics that nearly bankrupted host countries, author Laurie Dove opined, “The trick is to throw the world’s biggest party without going bankrupt in the process.”

To which I would add, “What if we threw the world’s biggest party and the most important guest — Old Man Winter — didn’t show?” Colorado’s resorts depend on an increasingly unreliable snowpack. Because snowmaking equipment only works when air temperatures are below freezing, the lack of cold caused huge issues — and additional expenses — for both Vancouver’s 2010 and Sochi’s 2014 winter games.

Although Fortune Magazine concludes that “Almost every Olympic host ends up in debt” — most often because promises to privately fund the games and not dip into the public till fall apart — there’s one notable exception. LA had enough existing facilities and didn’t have to build. It actually turned a profit in 1984.

However, the list of losers is long. It includes Montreal (summer 1976), Lake Placid (winter 1980), Albertville, France (winter 1992), Lillehammer (winter 1994), Nagano (winter 1998), Sydney (summer 2000), Athens (summer 2004), Turin (winter 2006), Vancouver (winter 2010) and Sochi (winter 2014).

When Albertville won the 1992 Winter Olympics, 13 other nearby French Alps towns joined in, hoping to boost their tourism economies. It didn’t work out, and the French government was saddled with a $67 million loss and decades of debt. A cautionary tale for mountain towns, perhaps?

When Athens hosted in 2004, the games cost $4.6 billion, $11 billion at today’s exchange rate. Some economists believe that paying off the resulting debt helped spark Greece’s 2009 economic crisis.

Then there’s Montreal. It took the province of Quebec 40 years to pay off a debt of $1.48 billion (in American dollars). But taxpayers are still on the hook because the province must provide an annual $17 million subsidy to maintain the stadium that started life as the Big O (for Olympics) but was since dubbed the Big Owe.

In case you haven’t been consulted and have an opinion on Colorado’s Big O, get moving. The Exploratory Committee’s online survey (www.explorethegames.com) closes March 3.

 

 

This column was printed in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on March 2, 2018.