Mama Said, Mama Said

“If all the other kids jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?”

“If you keep making that face, it will freeze that way!”

“Were you born in a barn?”

Every mom seems to know these phrases. They’re passed down through the ages: Grandma said them to mom. Mom used them on us. The same words mysteriously issue from our own mouths as the next generation of young ones appears.

Many of us heard these platitudes often enough to prepare snappy comebacks. I volunteered to package my lima beans and mail them to the starving children in Armenia. My friend Linda, who was Catholic, had a smartass answer to the born-in-a-barn question.

“Jesus was born in a barn,” she quipped. (Her mom’s snarky retort: “I bet he never left his clothes on the floor!”)

In addition to platitudes, we all hear some gold-plated originals, colorful phrases that capture mom’s unique character. Those words have the power to conjure up laughter and tears long after our moms have passed away.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I asked friends to share some of their moms most memorable phrases. Quite a few recall rural roots. My own mom, Myra Toussaint-Devine, who always spoke of the ice box and never the refrigerator, would sometimes look at me and observe, “You look about as mad as a wet hen.”

I had seen dry hens, but not wet ones. When we drove to a farm near Golden, Colorado to buy fresh eggs, I was tempted to grab a hose and douse a hen, just to see how mad she’d get.

I also recall my former mother-in-law — Reina Krause, a Brit — giving her son a quizzical look and chuckling, “What are you so chuffed about? You’re just cock-o-midden!” The phrase is pure Lancashire. Reina would trot this one out when David was overly impressed with himself. (“Cock of the midden” refers to a rooster crowing atop a dung heap.)

Tami Carson, a California teacher, says her mother Jo Fay Josephine used to exclaim, “You’re as awkward as a cow on a crutch.”

Some of my friends’ memories made me smile. Pam Kaiser Williams, daughter of Sondie Reiff, beloved of many here in Carbondale, says her mom would say, “Go put on a sweater. I’m cold.” Erin Dahl, my relative by marriage, recalls that her mom, Barbara Louise Merrill, always said that “ice cream fits in the cracks.” I certainly agree.

Other phrases took a philosophical turn. My friend Nancy Evan’s mother invoked fate by saying “good lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise.” Genevieve Essex, mother of Randy Essex, former editor of the Glenwood Post Independent, would frequently remind him, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

Still other sayings strive to build character. Rich Larson’s mother Ruth Louise Larson told him, “Tell the truth and you never have to remember what you said,” while Honey Bunting’s mother, Lois Holloway, warned, “Lies have short legs, but eventually they will catch up with you.”

David Horowitz remembers his mother, Gladys Horowitz, telling him: “If you are really good, you will never have to tell people how good you are. They’ll tell you.” (The orange-haired resident in the White House apparently missed that one. He should heed a lesson imparted by Mary DeNike, mother of my longtime friend Lynette DeNike. To wit: “Pretty is as pretty does.”)

Moms have all kinds of warnings: “Do as I say, not as I do.” “Because I said so.” And “Don’t make me come in there.” That one’s so popular, it has been inscribed on decorative garden stones with an attributive twist: “Don’t make me come down there.” – God

Don Chaney, who works at KMTS in Glenwood Springs, says his mom would issue a pointed warning: “Do that again and you’ll be picking up your teeth.” Bonedalian Valerie Gilliam says she would get an invitation to “go play on the freeway” when she and her brothers were overly rambunctious. “In my young brain, I thought she meant it literally,” says Valerie. “I would imagine myself playing on the freeway and it wasn’t any fun.” She finally had to ask her mom for an explanation.

Among the other head-scratchers I heard from friends is this one: Bread, bread, he cried—and the curtain came down with a roll!” Margaret Mary Shea used to say that, and her daughter Jane Shea Reagan never did figure out what it meant. “But we all say it now,” Jane comments.

Well, in the words of my friend Indra Ferry’s mother Joan Dawson, another Brit, “There’s nothing stranger than folks.”

Yes, there is. Moms. That’s just part of why we love them.

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Published May 16, 2018 in the Seeking Higher Ground Column of the Sopris Sun.

Amy Barr Loved the Hell Out of This World

If I awakened to find that my older husband had died during the night, I was supposed to call Amy Barr. Those were her instructions, and I knew that she could glue the pieces of me back together again.

 Dawn Mulally, a friend and a former United Way board member, had the same confidence. “If life had kicked you down, Amy was your cheerleader. She was a woman’s woman in that she saw the good in you when you couldn’t see it yourself. Amy was funny as hell with a true lust for life. When others said “no,” she’d say “yes.” Amy was able to create lovely spells of laughter, mischief and curiosity to crack the most solemn from their general malaise.”

Since Amy died, I’ve been struggling with a malaise of disorientation and loss that makes me want to call Amy. That’s illogical and contradictory, but grief is like that.

Funny, feisty and feminist with a laugh as big as the outdoors, Amy was a tireless advocate for equality, for the environment, for inclusiveness. A champion for social justice and a friend for the needy, she was always ready to write a letter to the editor, raise funds or raise hell – whatever needed doing, Amy got it done.

She was proof of the adage: if you need to get something done, ask a busy person.

I met Amy through our Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist (TRUU) congregation. Amy was a true Universalist, one of those folks who believe in  “loving the hell out of this world” rather than worrying about the hereafter. She had a hand in everything: organizing the auction, creating the winter solstice, putting on the Blessing of the Animals, co-founding our annual women’s camping trip.

But that barely scratched the surface. At Amy’s urging, I found myself dipping drippy ice cream cones and staffing the VIP tent at the Garfield County Fair, attending Democratic Party fundraisers and hopping a bus to join the Women’s March in Denver.

Robin Waters had the same experience. “Spunky, smart, warm and irreverent, Amy was a ball of earthy energy and vibrant life. Amy was the executive of the local three-valley United Way while I ran the Basalt Chamber, and she delighted me constantly with her ideas and observations. As I was transitioning from the Chamber, Amy invited me (nay, twisted my arm irresistibly) to join the United Way Board; shortly after, in one of life’s shake-your-head-and-flow-with-it ironies, Amy moved on to her new “dream” job at the helm of the regional Lift-Up program…That she loved her new job and was poised for her last, great contribution before retirement — her “swan song,” as she wrote me — is another of life’s ironies. She left too fast and too soon.”

Last week, as nine of us gathered to plan Amy’s memorial, we passed around a notepad to capture the ways she created community: She was treasurer of the Garfield County Democratic party. She served on the boards of Third Street Center, the Colorado Music Festival and the Garfield County Human Services Commission. She had been business manager for The Salvation Army’s Glenwood Springs InterValley Service Center. She was a prime mover in Garfield County’s Humanitarian Service Awards, helped judge the U.S. Presidential Environmental Award and organized Skier Appreciation Day at Sunlight Mountain. She rang bells for the Salvation Army, volunteered for the Aspen Valley Land Trust’s annual dinner, recorded for KDNK and put together events for Rotary.

Originally from Nebraska, Amy was a nutritionist with a background in education and communications. She was the first female vice president of Horizon Organic Dairy, director of the Good Housekeeping Institute and an executive editor-at-large for McCall’s magazine. After moving to Boulder, she co-founded Marr Barr Communications.

Everywhere she lived and worked, Amy touched those around her. Doug Kantor wrote on Facebook about his time with her at Horizon: “She could use that wonderful sense of humor combined with a comedic eye roll to communicate “yes, I know it’s crazy and chaotic here” but “this is a startup and this is our kind of crazy.” She had a way of making me feel like I was the important person in the room… She just knew, intrinsically, how to make people feel important and valued, and how to make work fun.”

If you knew Amy, you know just what he’s talking about — and you also know what she’d want from us. An ironic eye roll about life’s injustices, a celebration where everybody pitches in, and a commitment to keep volunteering, to keep loving the hell out of this world.

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Originally published in the Seeking Higher Ground column, Sopris Sun, April 4, 2018.

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.

Seeking Higher Ground: Unplugging from the 24/7 news cycle

When I give people my cell phone number, it’s always with the caveat that they shouldn’t expect to reach me 24/7. “I check this voicemail box about once a month,” my message warns. “If you need to reach me, call my landline.”

Call me a Luddite, call me an introvert, but I crave untethered time. I think it’s stupid to sleep with a smartphone under the pillow. I need time to unplug from the electronic world village.

In 2016, the A.C. Neilsen company found in 2016 that adults devoted 10 hours and 39 minutes a day to media, with TV taking the biggest chunk (4.5 hours), the internet coming in second. The average American spends nearly half the day staring at a screen. Worse, 83 percent of those answering a 2017 Bureau of Labor statistics poll said they that spent no time during a usual day relaxing or thinking.

Researchers have linked heavy media use to childhood obesity and found that teens who glue themselves to social media are more apt to say they’re depressed than those who limit screen time.

Multiple psychologists have also warned that violence in the media can cause symptoms akin to PTSD.

Last year, a study by the American Psychological Association found that two-thirds of Americans are anxious over the country’s future with constant news playing a major role. Dr. Steven Stosny has coined a term to describe the problem: “Headline Stress Disorder.”

HSD? Yeah, I get that.

David Sipress commented on this image in a New Yorker article called “How to Stay Sane as a Cartoonist in Trumpland.”

Time was there was something called “the news cycle.” What that meant was that newspapers, radio and TV reported the day’s news each evening. A few morning papers gave us last night’s update. In between, hours passed. Neither Vietnam nor Watergate was a 24/7 crisis.

Now, there’s no respite; no rest. Even when I leave my phone at home, someone in the coffee shop, on the bus or in the grocery is grasping theirs, gasping at the latest horror from the White House or congress, the most recent #MeToo revelation, school shooting or ISIS attack…

David Sipress’ New Yorker cartoon — the one that proclaims, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane” — has become a meme for good reason.

It’s hard to imagine now, but when I first moved to Aspen in 1970, I was out of touch for weeks at a time. I left Denver via Greyhound Bus due to a lack of other options: Gas cost only 36 cents a gallon, but I couldn’t afford a car. I had about $20 cash in my pocket, but no credit cards. (Like most females, I was denied credit until after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974.)
I landed three jobs in Snowmass: cleaning condos, cooking in a deli and ski-packing with the slope-grooming crew. I lived with five other girls in a trailer park. (Grown females were still called “girls” back then.) We had intermittent radio, no TV and no mail other than general delivery. Email? Nope, not for 20 more years. We didn’t have a landline, and none of us had cell phones either. Those too lay decades in the future.

We spent our evenings playing gin rummy, balancing on a bongo board in our living room, playing guitars, singing and even reading poetry.

The only way I could call home was via payphone. Snowmass didn’t have one, so I called on alternate Fridays, when I hitchhiked to Aspen to deposit my paper paycheck in the bank there. (There was no RFTA then, and no bank in Snowmass. Although the first ATM opened in Japan in 1969, they didn’t become common in the U.S. until the 1980’s.)

When I headed for Aspen in 1970, it was in part because I feared violence, felt the U.S. being torn asunder: the assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King. Fires and bombings. Urban riots. Hate speech.

The charged divide we now call “red” and “blue” threatened to electrocute us. I was terrified a truck driver would rape me, just for spite, when I was hitchhiking. (It never happened. In hindsight, I can say ‘me too’ — and that I should have worried more about young men on my side.)

Thanks to the electronics revolution, I’d say that living here is much easier and safer now. But I’d also quote the protest poet William Wordsworth penned at the dawn of the industrial revolution and say that “the world is too much with us, late and soon” — no thanks to the electronics revolution.

Wordsworth was right: “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” So pardon me while I power down, go stand on a pleasant lea and listen for old Triton blowing his wreathed horn.

This Seeking Higher Ground column was originally published in the Sopris Sun newspaper on February 14, 2018.

 

Damn the Internet-enabled Pusher Man

I don’t want my refrigerator setting up dates on the internet. Ever!

I’d be frosted to return home to find a bill on my door saying I’d missed a service call I had never set up.

When I first read about internet-enabled refrigerators, I felt certain they’d prove to be a trial balloon that wouldn’t fly. Surely, focus groups would reveal that people didn’t want to have to install “parental” controls or fuss with software updates for refrigerators!

But a few months ago, this dumb idea materialized in Lowe’s — smart refrigerators!

Frankly, I think that too many “smart” devices are monitoring our purchases, travel and daily habits already. Each one of those devices — our computers, phones, satellite dishes and internet-connected TVs — not only invite software viruses, but also open the door to identity-theft and spying. Yes, Big Brother can snoop, but I’m more worried about Big Business. Alexa and Siri are convenient, but they could worm into our internet searches, purchases and activities, becoming more intrusive than anything George Orwell ever envisioned.

Call me a Luddite, but I’m opposed to purchasing devices that monitor me or push me into commitments or decisions I didn’t intentionally initiate. I don’t like the way my City Market discount account tracks my purchases. I dislike automated bank withdrawals. I hate software agreements that sign me up for junk mail. I loathe “subscriptions” I must call to cancel; they can prove harder to withdraw from than crack cocaine!

But commerce wants us hooked and habituated. Companies like steady income. Why suffer seasonal sales or intermittent software releases if you can figure out how to generate “passive income”?

That’s why many companies are developing ways to automate purchases. Amazon, for example, is working on a “Dash Button” that would automatically order groceries when your pantry runs low

The notion of renting software from the cloud has spread wildly in the five years since Adobe changed its sales model. In 2013, Adobe quit selling software, instead offering $50 monthly subscriptions for its bundled Creative Suite, or individual subscriptions for programs within Creative Suite. At the time, CNET commented: “Early pioneers … argued that customers are better off with a steady stream of payments that gets them a steady stream of updates.”

Although I dislike updates and antivirus software, I detest this. For years, I used Photoshop, Dreamweaver and InDesign professionally. Each cost around $800. Alternatively, I could buy Creative Suite (CS) for $2,600. Expensive, but I could use my software for years if I didn’t need Adobe’s latest bells and whistles. Usually, I didn’t.

Eventually, the CS6 I bought in 2013 will fail because it will no longer work with my computer’s updated operating system. At that point, I’ll say goodbye to Adobe.

The issue isn’t just that I’m retired and want to limit recurrent bills. The proliferation of forced monthly payments — fees that are hidden or pushed on me due to lack of other options — angers me in several ways: I feel nickled-and-dimed to death! I don’t like cyber-spies in my home or pocket. Worst of all, remote-control billing undermines my financial control.

I already have an auto-deducted mortgage and tax-escrow account. I pay a monthly gas bill; an electric bill; house, car and medical insurance; a monthly internet fee; a TV subscription; cell and landline bills. I refused a monthly satellite radio subscription for the car. I won’t buy “extended warranties” for my stove, freezer or (thankfully-dumb) refrigerator. (Many consumer advocates say “buyer protection plans” range from a sucker’s bet to outright fraud.)

My distaste isn’t just personal. It’s also social, an aversion that brings some Steppenwolf lyrics to mind: “The dealer, for a nickel, will sell you lots of dreams, but the pusher will ruin your body and leave your mind to scream.”

Is this analogy a little harsh?

A 2015 Harris Poll found that about one-third of U.S. households earning $75,000 and above annually live paycheck to paycheck. A 2016 survey done by the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans didn’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. What happens if the breadwinner suffers an accident and is unable to intervene in the automated monthly bloodletting? Or worse yet, loses a job?

If it’s a set monthly fee, how do you tighten your belt? Does one automatically get booted out of the electronic connections needed to hold or find a job? Do you lose the means to keep your body fed and housed? And then, your rights as a citizen?

In the hour of crisis, will we be left to scream and fight the pusher man to preserve our independence and dignity?

Am I the only one who finds consumer addiction a poor model for civil society?

 

This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on Jan. 25, 2018

Two Years to Live?

“This is probably the disease that’s going to take you out.” I heard those words from my doctor a couple weeks ago.

Of course, life itself is a fatal condition. None of us gets out of here alive.

But having recently retired, I was looking forward to spending a decade or two painting and writing newspaper columns. I wasn’t planning an imminent tête-à-tête

with the Grim Reaper.

So my question is, “How soon?”

Answers are in short supply. Medical literature says two to 20 years. Twenty is more than the U.S. Census Bureau expects for someone of my vintage. Ten would be okay. But two years? Two years?

An email meltdown about that prompted my minister, the Reverend Shawna Foster of Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation, to come visit me. She came bearing a pink carnations and a story: Some years ago, Shawna attended the wake given by a woman who had been diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer. The woman had 18 months to live. She responded by throwing a gala “living wake” to celebrate her life and say goodbye to friends and loved ones.

 

But the gala that Rev. Shawna attended was the woman’s 23rd wake!

This story, in combination with advice my doctor gave me, has prompted me to announce my upcoming demise.

Dr. Katy Rieves (I cannot sing her praises, or those of Mountain Family Health loudly enough) told me that I should manage an upcoming trip to a specialist by assuming the very best outcome I can imagine. Dr. Katy told me to keep imagining the best right up to 24 hours before the visit. But on the last day, I should begin to assume the worst.

This is medically sound advice. Clinical studies show that patients who are optimistic have the best outcomes. And it’s very likely that what the specialist will tell me will fall short of the horrors I envision for that 24-hour period, so I won’t be blown away by bad news.

Mashing up my physician’s and my minister’s sage advice, I’m hereby announcing my death, in January, 2020. When I’m gone, I’d like those who cared about me to scatter my ashes on Mt. Sopris.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to make every day count. I will be working hard on a retrospective show of my artwork. I’m going to spend more time admiring the transitive beauty of hummingbirds, autumn leaves and snowflakes. Beginning with this column, I plan to begin wrestling with the topic of “memento mori”.

That Latin phrase roughly translates to “remember that you have to die.” In this culture, we don’t talk much about death, and our physicians are acculturated to ward it off and hence, skirt the issue. (Rev. Shawna says that’s what keeps ministers in business.)

But historically, Christians wove the mememto mori theme into life in many ways: Our Puritan forebears ornamented headstones with winged skulls and angels snuffing out candles. On Christian Gebhard’s huge, 1895 public mechanical clock, a skeleton appears to strike the hour. On Ash Wednesday, the words, “Remember, Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” are intoned as worshipers are marked with ash.

Life, and all the works of man, are so fragile.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to stand before a display case in the Legion of Honor museum and marvel at a 3-inch-high, cobalt blue flask. It dated from the first century. How could that fragile, Roman artwork survive wars, floods, earthquakes and the frailties of human error to be transported across the oceans and so many centuries intact?

Ah, but how many of its fellows perished? Glass-making began about 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. How many millions of beautiful vessels have been dashed to pieces? How many hours of artistry perished? How many artisans have been forgotten?

The Buddhists teach that everything is already broken.

Thai Buddhist master Achaan Cha was said to have held up a favorite tumbler and said, “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns… But when I put this glass on the shelf, when the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

So it is for me, for you, for all of us.

Perhaps my glass is half-full. Perhaps I will plan a living wake. Perhaps more than one wake. Time will tell.

 

This Seeking Higher Ground column was originally published in the Sopris Sun newspaper on January 17, 2018.

The Good Sense God Gave a Goose

My brother Gene recently emailed me, noting that I like to “be politically active.” His concern was the “chemtrails” conspiracy. He says it will ensure that I won’t live long enough to collect the Social Security I’ve paid into for half a century.

Another thing to be politically active about?! My sibling doesn’t know I write political columns, constantly pester members of congress, visit Corey Gardner’s Grand Junction office and regularly donate to environmental organizations and candidates for office.

Some weeks I feel I’m running around like a chicken with its head cut off — frantically trying to keep vultures in Washington from killing off what I like best about my life and our country. I’m tormented over the widening gap between rich and poor, attacks on public education, denial of science, separation of church and state, racism, health care, upcoming attacks on the “entitlements” of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, mass extinction of species, global warming …

Despair is my worst enemy. I lived through the riots, fires, assassinations and impeachment in the 1970s. Hard as it was to have Ken Burn’s “Vietnam” series bring back the visceral memory of those times, I have to say that these days are darker still.

I don’t know about chemtrails. My brother has delivered earnest lectures about Area 51 and Anunnaki aliens who re-engineered our DNA so that humans would mine gold for them. One might say those insights, plus his military secrecy clearance (he’s a retired Navy submariner) might give him insight into chemtrails? Hmm. Gene thinks this conspiracy is connected to HAARP, the government’s High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program. While manipulating weather for defense purposes via HAARP, the government is damaging the environment. Life on earth now has seven years to survive …

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I do think that the current GOP is working to dismantle the health care system, void “entitlements” we have paid for, shred the social safety net, decimate science and environmental protections … and along with that, threaten the survival of most of my favorite species, humans among them.

Personally, I’m not going down without a fight.

Getting out into nature helps revive my spirit. Sometimes, outdoors, when I hear Canadian geese flying close and calling overhead, I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese”:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile, the world goes on…
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.

As I walk along, I practice gratitude: How fortunate I am to occupy my niche in the family of things, and to be in this place especially. I have never gone hungry. I got a good education. I’m healthy enough to enjoy this glorious day. I live in a blessed spot. In the United States. In Colorado. In the Roaring Fork Valley.

As I trundle along, listening to Canada geese honking overhead, I reflect on the good sense God gave geese. While flying in a V, each goose creates uplift for the goose behind it. By drafting, like bike racers, the flock achieves a 71 percent greater flying range than one bird alone would have. Honking geese aren’t whining “are we there yet?” They’re encouraging their leaders to keep up the good work. And when the lead goose tires, it rotates back into formation. Another goose flies to the point position.

These are the lessons of community — good to remember in these dark and perilous times.

Often, on my rambles, I’ll meet a neighbor: Carbondale photographer Julie Albrecht on her bike, carrying munchies to the goats we visit. Basalt arborist Kim Bock nursing the cottonwoods. Glenwood yogi and piano teacher Annig Agemian Raley spreading peace and cheer.

Seems I can’t go anywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley anonymously. I always bump into someone I’m glad to see, so glad I feel a rush of joy on encountering them. If I were a goose, I’d honk out loud.

Although none of us, individually, gets out of this world alive, I want the family of things to survive. So I’m grateful to be held in concentric rings of community, to be in formation with others who will be there for the long flight.

Published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, December 29, 2017

Seeking Higher Ground: Not more Christmas carols!

A confession: I hate Christmas carols.

Well, maybe not all of them.

Christmas music gets piped into every retail store, airport and bus station beginning six weeks before Christmas. The onslaught now begins before Thanksgiving. So each year, I must endure five or six weeks of music I was totally sick of from the get-go.

If I never hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” again, it will be too soon. My friend Steve Barrell heard that one while visiting his mom in assisted living and Steve’s sister got quite huffy. She thought it was inappropriate for frail people with walkers.

Steve lives in California, so he’s probably safe from attacking reindeer. They don’t have enough snow for Santa’s sleigh. Like us, they’re just dreaming of a white Christmas.

“Santa Baby” is another one I could do without. Our Sopris Sun editor Will Grandbois thinks “it’s disturbingly adult given its addressee.” Personally, I’m miffed about this song. Both because Santa is married, for goodness sake, and because the singer is so mercenary. She’s not as sacrilegious as Janis Joplin was in asking the Lord for a Mercedes Benz, but she’s not as funny either.

That’s the other big gripe I have about Christmas music. It’s the soundtrack for the Grinches who really have stolen Christmas — the hucksters. I’m already cranky about the commercialization of everything from clothing to magazines to parks and stadiums. I won’t buy any clothes with the brand on the outside; my body is not for rent as a billboard and I’m certainly not offering it up as free ad space! I won’t read magazines that are mostly advertising. And I resent having the nation’s high holiday highjacked in the name of convincing us all to buy yet more stuff we don’t need.

Woe betide those who work retail during the holidays! They are held hostage to endless of repetitions of the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Why? Because psychologists who study retail have proven that Christmas music, combined with holiday scents, will increase both the time shoppers spend in stores and their buying intentions. Merchandisers are subtly scheming to get you to come home with five golden rings, four calling cards, three French wines, two boxes of turtle chocolate and a partridge in a pear tree.

Perhaps the reason I’m such a Grinch is that I’m over-exposed. A. C. Nielsen reports that about 70 percent of the public likes Christmas music. But the number who consider themselves actual “fans” declines with age. Nielsen’s 2017 holiday music audience report states that’s 36 percent of millennials are holiday music fans, compared to 31 percent of Generation X and only 25 percent of baby boomers.

As a boomer, I have already consumed more than six decades of carols. During my teenage years, I often had no option other than AM radio, which, even in the 1970s, was offering a steady diet of singing Chipmunks (released in 1963), dogs barking Jingle Bells (1955) and Bing Crosby (1942) interminably dreaming of a white Christmas. My love of ice-skating has contributed to over-exposure; as a thrice-a-week figure-skating student and a twice-a-week figure-skating teacher, I have spent countless hours on the ice trapped under poor-quality PA systems blaring Christmas music.

Luckily for me, I hear too poorly to make out the lyrics to what my friend Claire Lewis calls “the rappy, moany just-need-you-in-bed for Christmas” songs.

Unluckily, the words for dozens of Christmas carols have been indelibly grooved into my memory. They’ve become permanent earbugs, evil as the insect that Ricardo Montalban dropped into Pavel Checkov’s ear in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.”

Lest you think that I’m a total Scrooge, there are a few carols I actually do like: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” written by Johan Sebastian Bach in 1733. “Good King Wenceslas,” which was published in 1853, setting lyrics to a Finish tune that dates back to the 1500s. (Wenceslas was a 10th century Bohemian King.) And “Riu, Riu, Chiu,” a medieval Spanish villancico. It was preserved in a collection of madrigals published in Venice in 1556 and was probably written in Catalonia. (Yeah, I’m old, but not quite that old.)

In addition to being ancient and classical, these carols share something more. They celebrate things the season really should be about: reverence, joy, generosity and faith. I’m not a Christian, but I appreciate those virtues, as do millions who honor other faiths around the globe.

And on that note, let me wish you a glorious holiday season with another carol that I like, one that just makes me feel happy. As Jose Feliciano sang it: “Feliz Navidad – prospero ano y felicidad. I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas, from the bottom of my heart.”

Published in the Sopris Sun, December 13, 2017

Watch Out for Terrorists

The U.S. is now top-of-the-heap worldwide when it comes to mass shootings. Under the definition used by the Gun Violence Archive – that four or more people shot and killed in roughly the same place and time equals a “mass shooting” – we’re now experiencing seven such incidents a week.

It’s an everyday event.

Unless, of course, you’re personally in the crosshairs. In which case, it tends to be memorable.

I have only been held at gunpoint twice. The first time, I was pinned in a stairwell by an anxious young man holding a handgun; police had mistakenly identified him as a Black Panther. The second time I was exiting a shower and was menaced by a husband with a rifle. These were one-off, single-target threats, so I’m no expert at mass shootings.

I also recognize the folly of trying to discuss gun control in the current political context. Didn’t the White House just reassure us that last week’s Texas church shooting wasn’t about guns, but rather, “a mental health problem”?

Given that, this might be a good time to share what’s known about mental health problems that predispose people to shoot you. You probably want to avoid those folks.

Of course, it’s hard to avoid them completely. That would entail staying away from elementary schools, universities, post offices, birth-control clinics and churches, not to mention bike paths, theatres, country-music concerts and even Walmart.

Then again, it’s not like the bad guys are hiding under your bed.

Or maybe they are. For women, the statistically most-dangerous group of people would be husbands. In the US, approximately 1,500 women are killed annually by husbands or boyfriends.

Devin Patrick Kelley, who killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Spring last week, fits that profile. Before the church shooting, Kelley spent 12 months in a military prison for assaulting his then-wife and stepson. He had also been charged with animal cruelty for beating a dog. (Welfare officials in many states are legally required to report animal cruelty because it so strongly predicts child abuse and domestic violence.)

One might reasonably think that someone with a background like Kelley’s shouldn’t be allowed to buy one gun, let alone four.

Actually, under Texas law, Kelley shouldn’t have been able to buy a gun. But apparently, our gun laws aren’t well enforced.

Thank goodness our elected officials are working hard to make us safer by building walls, conducting extreme vetting and barring entry to visitors from places known for terrorism. Places like Mexico, Syria, Iran, Sudan and Yemen.

I’m concerned we don’t pay enough attention to North Carolina.

I kid you not. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have cataloged dozens of examples of terrorists from North Carolina. Dylan Roof, who drove from South Carolina to murder nine black people in a church in Shelby, North Carolina, was one of the more infamous.

Robert Lewis Dear, the gunman who killed three people and wounded nine at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, was another. Undocumented and unvetted, Dear was able to sneak across Colorado’s borders with a semi-automatic rifle. When police arrested him, he muttered, “no more baby parts.” Dear wasn’t a churchgoer, but online, he had often spoken of Jesus and the “end times.”

Typical terrorist ideology. Homeland Security, TSA and FEMA have identified characteristics that tend to identify potential domestic terrorists like Dear. Among them: libertarian philosophies; stockpiling food, ammo, hand tools and medical supplies; buying gold; anxiety about the apocalypse and the antichrist; fear of big government, homeschooling, a belief in a New World Order conspiracy and NRA membership.

NRA membership?

It’s probably just statistical error that, in cases of domestic violence, having a firearm in the house ups the odds of murder about five-fold. Between 1990 and 2005, more than two-thirds of spouse and ex-spouse homicides were shootings.

Still, America is number one worldwide in firearms per capita, way ahead of Yemen, which is number two. U.S. civilians now own about 270 million guns, enough for every adult to have one, with firearms to spare. (In more than half of American mass shootings, the killer had more than one firearm. That’s not true abroad.)

With just 4.4 percent of the world’s population, America has achieved a stunning 30 percent of the world’s public mass shootings. That makes us number one in mass shootings.

Since we don’t seem to be able to keep firearms out of the hands of people like Devin Kelley and Dylan Roof, and since it’s hard to stay out of all the public places shooters tend to show up, it’s at least good to know how to identify who’s most likely to have you in the crosshairs.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on November 16 , 2017