The Dog Ate My Hearing Aid

“How’s that new hearing aid working for Jim?” I asked.

“It would work better if he actually wore it,” my friend replied.

More than half a dozen friends have recently lamented to me that their spouses can’t hear. The symptoms range from squabbles and denial to hiding a new hearing aid in a drawer. Or lamenting, “the dog ate my hearing aid.”

Weird as it sounds, there are good reasons for all these weird behaviors, both human and canine.

When I got my first hearing aid in my 30s, I wrote a rather-famous Newsweek essay titled “Hearing the Sweetest Songs” about the experience. In response, I got two potato-sack-sized bags filled with fan mail. Decades later, I still get the occasional letter; the column resonated, and it has been anthologized and reprinted many times.

As I wrote back then, the experience of being fully “abled” is temporary. As we age, most of us develop various disabilities. Presbycusis, or age-related hearing loss, has historically affected about two-thirds of Americans. (It may become even more common among baby boomers due to our youthful love of loud rock concerts.)

Having lost my hearing as a result of fevers in infancy and childhood, I’m not suffering from presbycusis. But until the microelectronics revolution, hearing aids were little more than amplifiers. They offered no help in dealing with my childhood “cookie-bite” hearing loss, which nipped out the frequencies used by human speech. This is why I didn’t get a hearing aid until after I had struggled through both college and a graduate degree.

My first few weeks with a hearing aid were torture. In my Newsweek essay, I described beginning to hear with my formerly-silent left ear: “It shattered my peace: shoes creaking, papers crackling, pencils tapping, phones ringing, refrigerators humming, people cracking knuckles, clearing throats and blowing noses!

“Cars, bikes, dogs, cats, kids all seemed to appear from nowhere and fly right at me … I felt as though inquisitorial Nazis in an old World War II film were burning the side of my head with a merciless white spotlight.” That, plus a tinny quality that reminded me of a PA in a high school gym, left me feeling “constantly startled, unnerved, agitated — exhausted.”

Fortunately, the audiologist had warned me, “You can’t simply put on a hearing aid and start to hear again. Your brain must relearn the skill of processing sound.” Neither the human cochlea nor a modern, digital hearing aid truly has the ability to filter out background noise; only the brain can do that. But left unused, the brain’s processing mechanism grows flabby. Like a couch potato preparing for ski season, the brain needs a conditioning program before it can begin to start carving out the white noise.

It took my young adult brain about a month to learn. Taking the audiologist’s advice, I adopted a phase-in schedule like those used by new contact-lens wearers; a few hours at first, half-days the second week, full days the third. After six weeks, I realized that all the shoe-squeaking and paper shuffling had disappeared. I was also gobsmacked to discover that I could no longer even detect that high-school-PA quality that had initially bothered me so.

Unfortunately, many folks never get to that point. While 95 percent of hearing loss can be treated with modern programmable, digital aids, only about 15 percent of the 48 million hard-of-hearing Americans ever get hearing aids. That’s tragic, because studies have shown that hearing loss leads to social isolation, and that in turn leads to both depression and serious declines in mental functioning.

Because I’m so often asked for advice, I have toyed with the idea of doing a free talk on learning how to use hearing aids. That would help keep hearing aids in ears, where they belong, rather than drawers, where they’re useless. And it would also keep them out of dogs’ stomachs, where they’re dangerous.

At the start of this column, I promised insights into canine as well as human behavior. So here goes: Dogs (and cats), who hear a frequency range of 40 to 60,000 Hz — far beyond the 20 and 20,000 Hz humans hear — experience a high (and possibly-painful) feedback squeal when a hearing aid has been left on and out in the open. Maybe, our pets think the shrieking aid is an annoying insect?

But unlike cats — who tend to just bat the $2,000-$5,000 device around the floor — canines usually respond by chewing or gulping down the offending hearing aid. Result: a pricey vet bill in addition to the loss of the hearing aid.

Cheap solution: Train the humans to listen to reason and save $6,000 in the process.

>><<<

This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, October 25, 2018

 

Some Sober Reflections on Carbondale Culture

Even though it’s home to Jaywalker Lodge, I suspect it isn’t easy to get or to stay sober in Carbondale.

Although I have been darn-near dry for 30-plus years, it’s rare for me to go to a First Friday, an art opening or a fundraiser without feeling like a fifth wheel. No sooner do I walk in than some sociable soul offers me a beer, a cocktail or a glass of wine. Following a brief, awkward opt-out, I generally find myself sipping a Perrier (yuck) or tap water (same minerally taste, fewer bubbles).

It’s the rare event that’s planned with Jaywalkers or Friends of Bill in mind.

I’m not an alcoholic, so I’ve never had a physical craving or felt withdrawal. I virtually quit drinking due to a six-month-long fit of rage brought on by my divorce from an alcoholic. I cut out the remaining glass of wine on New Year’s and my birthday a year ago for health reasons. Alcoholics have a tougher row to hoe.

Recently, a bright and inspiring acquaintance of mine — I will call him Shep) announced that that he was ready to say goodbye to booze and is going to rehab. Because he’s so athletic, social and entrepreneurial — the opposite of my laconic, grumpy, anti-social ex — I was surprised at Shep’s announcement.

Then again, not surprised.

Roaring Fork Valley social events tend to be fairly high proof. Octoberfest is all about beer. Every business mixer features mixed drinks. And everybody would whine if Happy Hour didn’t include wine.

Everyone except me.

This past summer, I found myself stuck with tap water at a fundraiser for CARE, exiting a KDNK First Friday concert and boycotting the Art Base’s pARTy fundraiser all for the same reason. I did donate a painting to Carbondale Arts, but I boycotted the Art Heist where it was sold. The evening was a Roaring-Twenties themed cocktail party where, once again, I would be left feeling high and dry.

I got testy with Carbondale Arts when they sent an email offering to buy me a beer at Mountain Fair in return for renewing my membership. (I re-upped despite that offer. I do love what CA does for this town, and Amy Kimberly sent a solicitous note in response to my admittedly cranky email.)

It’s not fair for me to be picking on Carbondale, or even the mid-valley. Aspen has long had a party culture that flows downhill and has proved toxic to many. Decades ago, when I was a ski-bum in Snowmass, the place was Rocky Mountain high, and it hasn’t changed. While working for an Aspen real estate firm a few years back, I was gobsmacked to discover the reason my colleague could never schedule a meeting before 3 p.m. – she was a 50-year-old party girl who was still working off a daily hangover!

I suspect the problem starts in college, then by the time we’re middle-aged, we’re so acculturated to drinking it’s hard to imagine being social without spirits.

My alma mater, CU Boulder, was a famous party school, though perhaps not on par with Georgetown Prep, as revealed by the recent Supreme Court confirmation process for Brett Kavanaugh.  In “Wasted”, a memoir about his time at Georgetown, Kavanaugh’s friend, Mark Judge, wrote, “It soon became obvious that drinking was one of the major forms of recreation… On Monday morning, the upperclassmen would return from the weekend with stories about keg parties, girls, and hours spent in bars in Georgetown…. At Prep, seniors would often go directly from class to a bar.”

The pattern persists at many schools. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 58 percent of full-time college students said that they drank in the past month and nearly 27 percent of those over 18 reported binge drinking in the past month.

Personally, I think we need to retire the phrase “sober as a judge” and rethink our cocktail culture. An estimated 88,000 people (more than twice as many men as women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the nation’s third leading preventable cause of death.

It is possible to be a congenial host without hooch. It’s been over a year since I visited Steven and Bailey Haines at their green home in Satank. When I walked in, Steven offered me a cocktail. When I demurred, he quickly switched to making me a “mocktail” – a delightful fruit-juice concoction that was as delicious as it was gracious.

Since then, I rarely go out to any event without a BYO mocktail.

I’m raising one now, and wishing Shep all the best for years to come.

>>><<<

Originally published in the Seeking Higher Ground column, Sopris Sun, October 17, 2018.

Dark Days for Democracy, Dangerous Days for Journalism

Asked to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson stated, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Today, Jefferson wouldn’t have that choice; due to economics, electronic media and the internet, newspapers face extinction. In their stead, according to the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of US adults get their “news” from Facebook, while Fox is the most viewed cable news network.

But both Facebook and Fox have stated that their business is entertainment, not news.

All contracts — including the social contract we call democracy — require “informed consent.” But millions of Americans are deeply un-informed: 34 percent of Americans reject evolution; 22 percent of millenials are unaware of the Holocaust!

There’s good reason why children, lunatics and those of “diminished capacity” — folks who can’t understand what they’re signing up for — are legally barred from signing contracts. There’s reason to worry that gobs of us now fall into that “diminished capacity” category — folks who vote without understanding what they’re signing up for.

Upon retiring after 40 years of newspapering in the Roaring Fork Valley, John Colson told The Sun that, “people need newspapers or some equivalent…to keep them informed about what’s going on around them, so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society. I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”

Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, says that Colorado provides a microcosm for journalism nationwide. Here, he writes, “We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners.”

For years, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Denver Post was the only news organization that covered statewide politics and elected officials. But more than two-thirds of the Post’s newsroom has been axed in the past decade. Last April, when the paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, demanded deeper cuts despite profitability, staff rebelled, penning an editorial describing Alden managers as “vulture capitalists.”

In the last 10 years, the loss of half of Colorado’s press corps has predictably led to “a new generation of public officials…accustomed to fielding fewer tough questions, handling fewer open records requests, and having fewer cameras pointed at them than their predecessors.” That observation comes from Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene.

Greene is alarmed. Not only was a reporter handcuffed for photographing Denver cops arresting a naked panhandler, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has also refused to open records about a prosecutor’s misconduct. The Court’s decision in the Mario Owens case, Greene writes, “has made Colorado the only state without a presumptive First Amendment right to review any court documents. No other court in the nation has gone so far.”

Since 1733, when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for criticizing a corrupt royal governor, reporting has at times proved  hazardous: In 1984, neo-Nazis murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg. Reporter Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland in 2007. But last April’s shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis Capital Gazette thrust us into foreign territory — the US now ranks among the top nations in journalists killed on the job!

Although Trump expressed sympathy for the Gazette, he nonetheless instigates. He calls the press “the enemy of the people” and rails against “fake news” while having told 4,229 documented lies since assuming the presidency. Supporters at his campaign rallies wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

The Washington Post’s motto puts the danger succinctly: democracy dies in darkness.

Through the murk, I do see a couple of rays of sunshine: Sept. 10 marked the dawning of the Colorado Sun, a statewide, online news organization formed by 10 journalists who fled the Denver Post. Last week, The Sopris Sun published its 500th issue.

Although I count this valley fortunate in still having local newspapers, they’re all financially fragile. Greene explains that “a free press is a financially sustainable press that’s independent enough to keep asking hard questions of people in power, regardless of fallout from funding sources.” None of our local news outlets are robust enough to ask hard questions, let alone powerful enough to investigate local businesses that buy ads.

That’s why I’m taking Greene’s advice and paying for my news. In addition to subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post, I donate annually to The Sopris Sun and KDNK radio. I also have added a Colorado Sun subscription.

If you value democracy, I urge you to do likewise. Also, plan to attend KDNK’s Your News, Your Community forum, at 4 p.m. Oct. 13, to hear from Western Slope newspapers in the Colorado Media Alliance about these topics.

><<<

Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on September 20, 2018

Gimme Shelter from Fires, Drought, Floods and Hurricanes

Returning from a recent trip, my friend Jae, who watched the Lake Christine Fire from her deck, was dismayed to find our valley filled with smoke — again! It prompted her to ask friends where she could move to escape summer fires.

Smoke from this summer’s Lake Christine fire, about 12 miles from where I live.

That’s a huge question, one connected to lack of snow, resulting drought, more than 100 wildfires in 18 western states, and ultimately, to climate change. What Jae is really wondering is where to go to at least mitigate the effects of global warming.

Last year, between wildfires, six Atlantic hurricanes, epic floods and mudslides, our countrymen suffered $306 billion in property damage. In 2017, climate and weather-related events caused the deaths of more than 300 Americans and forced more than 1 million of us from our homes.

Yeah, Mick Jagger had it right: “Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.”

The Lake Christine fire seen from my friend Jae’s balcony.

Finding safe shelter is complicated because the effects of warming — the storms, the fires, the floods that Jagger sang about — are indeed global. As are droughts, water shortages and changes in food-growing patterns.

A few years ago, I worked for an Aspen/Snowmass firm that advertised the motto, “Real estate on higher ground.” As best I could discern, the motto referenced both altitude and attitude. The firm is dedicated to meeting the expectations of buyers of Aspen surreal estate, boundaries be damned!

In a place where a home goes for over $7 million (Aspen’s average single-home price is now $7.34 million), buyers do have the right to expect that their brokers eat, sleep and dream real estate, I suppose. Employees shouldn’t feel offended when a phone call interrupts their dental surgery (though I was, and that’s probably why I’m not doing that work now).

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether any real estate agents have begun to offer their services in helping to answer Jae’s gimme-shelter-from-climate-change question. There is an “eco-broker” certification. It references advanced green-building knowledge, ensuring that a broker understands a homebuyer’s desire for “efficiency and sustainability.”

Sustainability? Ruh roh! That would rule out frequently fleeing fires, ocean rise or hurricanes.

While my internet search didn’t turn up any seacoast firms offering to locate real estate on “higher ground” per se, realtors in places like Florida are already seeing around a six percent discount on exposed homes, and they’re offering under-the-table counsel, saying, “No, that place is rather prone to flooding.” Rather than, “In a few years, flood insurance will cost more than your mortgage and saltwater will short out the local power plant.”

By combining data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Zillow, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has projected that 311,000 homes along the U.S. coastline will face flooding on average 26 times a year within the next 30 years. That’s the typical lifespan of a new mortgage, and flooding that frequent could lead communities to an un-sustainable tipping point. As UCS Senior Scientist Kristina Dahl envisions, “When people have to drive through salt water to get to work or face their kids’ school being cut off … you can imagine people walking away from mortgages, away from their homes.”

A similar tipping point has been reached in the U.S. before, not due to flooding, but to drought. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 2.5 million people left their homes and fled the plains states during the Dust Bowl.

Jesse M. Keenan, a faculty member of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, was interviewed in a recent Medium article. Keenan, who studies the impact of climate change on cities, has coined the term “climate gentrification” to describe resettlement patterns that have occurred in multiple places worldwide. In the U.S., it occurred in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and it’s happening now in California’s Sonoma County following the Santa Rosa fire.

In places that have suffered fires, floods and hurricanes, climate gentrification occurs as those who can afford to rebuild reinforce their homes or move to safer locations. That pushes up costs and subtracts housing stock. Poorer residents and retirees on fixed incomes are forced to sell or move due to repair costs, insurance hikes and resulting higher rents. A millionaire doesn’t fret over $50 a month more, but if you’re a recent grad struggling with $200,000 of college debt, it can push you underwater.

“This is not about whether you believe in climate change or not,” Keenan said, “It’s about the impact climate change will have on your livelihood and your pocketbook.”

Some cynical part of me says that a massive, coming (but-still-subrosa) alteration of American living patterns constitutes an opportunity for real estate agents, those who can figure out where higher ground might be. Coming soon — the Gimme Shelter real estate certification?

<<<>>><<<>>>

Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, August 23, 2018

Plein Aire Painting

In August of 2018, at the invitation of the Wilderness Workshop, I taught a plein aire (outdoor painting) class at Janeway, a spot near Redstone.

I had a blast.

The hike was led by Wilderness Workshop’s Brandon Jones, who picked a perfect spot — one that Wilderness Workshop wants to protect from too much traffic, traffic that could come in the form a trail being built in the area.

Six students came on the hike, and rather than have them all paint the same thing, I invited each new painter to choose his or her own subject. (My theory being that every artist has to discover what awakens the artistic muse.) No two students chose the same thing.

In addition, I provided some instruction in composition, dynamic range and color theory, specifically how to avoid mixing “palette mud” — that ugly brownish grey that appears when people don’t understand how to mix colors.

I believe that the six participants, many first-time painters, were all pretty pleased with their paintings. At the end of the class, they surprised me with a newly painted and signed thank you note.

Happy results!
The autographed thank-you note.

<<<>>>  <<<>>>  <<<>>>

A Secondhand Rose in a Great, Green Town

When Barbra Streisand sang about being a secondhand rose in Funny Girl, she sounded a little blue.

But I think it’s something to celebrate, and Carbondale’s clutch of secondhand stores make it easy to do.

My affection for recycled goods predates my life in Carbondale. When I lived in San Francisco, fab recycled finds regularly rolled down the hill from upscale Ashbury Heights to Haight Street. The same gravitational principle applies here, downvalley from Aspen.

Not long ago, Sopris Sun staffers Will Grandbois and Megan Tackett debated buying locally versus shopping on the internet. I’m with Will. I’m a locavore, and if I can mitigate a product’s carbon footprint by buying it here, rather than having it shipped from Chicago or China, I will.

That said, thrift store shopping requires some open-mindedness.

In early summer, I tossed a pair of dog-eared sandals. The replacements had to be red and conform to certain foibles: Flip-flops are beneath my dignity. I get altitude sickness from heels over two inches high. And I have a princess-and-the-pea syndrome about anything passing between my toes. Beyond that, I was open to serendipity.

When I walked into Back Door Consignment, I found that the place had been oh-so-artfully redesigned. The shoes, grouped by color, were precariously perched atop chairs hung on the wall. Yep, red shoes were easy to find. However, you could scuff a lot of shoe leather looking for a specific size.

During the 15 to 20 minutes I spent searching, I was transported back to Moscow, circa 1975. There, in front of a huge, communist-era department store, I saw dozens of gesticulating people crowding around a heap of footwear. An Intourist guide explained that when footwear became available – a rare event – Muscovites rushed in to buy any shoes they could lay their hands on. While the comrades didn’t fuss about style (there was only one!) their sidewalk swap did relieve the lingering capitalist tendency to prefer some specific size.

I don’t think that would fly in Carbondale. Maybe Back Door reached the same conclusion. Last time I visited, the shoe displays had given way to a bit more practicality.

Back Door has, IMHO, the best selection of recycled furniture in town, along with a good selection of dishes and clothing. But my fave rave these days is the Near New on Main. (A shout-out here to fellow Sopris Sun board member Olivia Pevec, a new volunteer who been a force behind the store’s renaissance.) If you need a pillowcase, a pot lid, a pan for your camp stove or a picture frame – something now missing from Miser’s – Near New is now the place to find it.

I have bought shoes and clothing at Lulu’s, and I favor buying artsy and recycled clothes at Mountain Fair. The Buy Nothing Roaring Fork group on Facebook has helped me recycle furniture while providing a painting easel and a metal headboard that makes a great bean trellis.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also put in a plug for Ragged Mountain Sports. That’s where I found my cross-country skis and the shockingly-pink bike I peddled in June’s Full Moon Bike Ride.

That’s me, cross-country skiing with my friend Kim. My second-hand skiis, boots and poles came from Ragged Mountain Sports. The sweater came from Miser’s Mercantile. The Roaring Fork Valley is just stuffed with recyclable sporting gear.

Now pink is not my color. It’s too girly; too Hello Kitty. I’m short, and to get things to fit, I sometimes buy children’s clothing. In a long-ago team-building meeting, a coworker who was asked to characterize me as an animal likened me to a chipmunk! In my quest to be taken seriously, as a manager and an adult, I wore a lot of black. Pink was poison.

But as I said, thrift shoppers need to be open to surprise. And at my age, I’m no longer cute enough to be chucked under the chin. Even if I do ride a pink bike.

I did find red sandals at Miser’s Mercantile. (Their shoes, like their clothes, are grouped by color, but you don’t have to trot all over to find your size.) I also bought a great second-hand watch at Miser’s. They nicely offered to refund my money if the Fossil turned out to be one, but Miser’s 24-hour time limit expired long before I could find a battery. Turns out that it’s next to impossible to have a watch battery replaced in Carbondale. By the time I located a jeweler (in Glenwood), got an appointment and found time for the 40-minute round trip drive, a week had elapsed!

Still, anytime is the right time for recycling in our green-leaning town. When you’re a secondhand rose wearing secondhand clothes, you’re reducing greenhouse gasses, keeping junk out of landfills, conserving energy and building our local economy. And that looks just great on you.

>>><<<>>><<<

Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on August 15, 2018

Fire in Our Back Yards and Our Children’s Future

I’m doing a slow burn. The Lake Christine Fire — which [as of this writing] has again flared up and prompted evacuation notices — strikes me as an apt metaphor for the reason why.

Our democracy, our shared future and our small planet are all aflame, but it seems that nothing immediate can be done to contain the blaze.

Like the firefighters who have convened to save our homes, we’re constrained: The flames are burning in territory too inaccessible for us to reach. The conditions were set by climactic forces long in play and largely beyond our control. They were sparked by dangerous attitudes. They will burn far too long.

All we can do is to carve out distant firebreaks, wait and tamp down the outbreaks.

Photo of the Lake Christine fire by my friend Jae Gregory. This was taken from her deck!

Appalled as I was by hearing the president toady up to Vladimir Putin and deny (again) that Russia tampered with the 2016 election — a crime now substantiated by 13 criminal indictments and four U.S. security agencies — those treasonous acts pale in comparison with ignoring the climactic conflagration breaking out near and far.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high at 105 degrees. On July 2, Montreal recorded its highest temperature ever. On July 5, the planet’s hottest continent reached the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, as the thermometer in Ouragla, Algeria soared to 124.3 degrees.

Global warming is here. It’s visible from my driveway in Carbondale.

I can see smoke from the Lake Christine Fire, which has now burned 12,000 acres, as it continues to consume Basalt Mountain. The pines and pinions there are tinder-dry due to drought. That drought, classified as “moderate” in our neck of the woods and “extreme” in Southern Colorado, came about because our snowpack was the poorest in 30 years.

This year’s skiing was often rocky, our season having shrunk by more than a month since I was a kid. Our views are currently hazy due to wildfires. Our rivers have shrunk, affecting boating and fishing. But we’re the lucky ones.

This month, international diplomats met in New York and Geneva to discuss what to do with a worldwide surge in refugees. There’s no official agreement yet on how to define a “climate refugee.” But since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by weather disasters every year. Those numbers are growing annually, and rapidly.

In our valley, the fire forced 1,793 people to evacuate. Three families lost their homes. Dozens of Basalt businesses had to close temporarily. The Temporary canceled several concerts, and dozens of flights to the Aspen Airport were scratched.

Those losses and inconveniences are related to global warming.

So are these: 2,300 Puerto Rican families have remained homeless since Hurricane Maria. Two million U.S. homes will be lost to a very-possible six-foot ocean rise by 2020. And climate change will likely displace 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America over the next 30 years.

That last number comes from a report entitled “Groundswell — Preparing for Climate Migration,” published by the World Bank early this year. In its introduction, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva writes, “Increasingly, we are seeing climate change become an engine of migration, forcing individuals, families and even whole communities to seek more viable and less vulnerable places to live.”

The earth is doing a slow burn. But our president is responding as Nero was fabled to have done while Rome burned: The U.S. pulled out of the United Nations-led Global Compact on Migration in December, just as our nation pulled out the Paris agreement on climate change in 2017.

The two issues are interdependent. We have seen that in microcosms since our local fire began (ironically enough) on Independence Day.

Although treasonous statements and refugee children in cages have fanned the current political flames white hot, I fear the worst damage wrought by this administration will come from fiddling away while the earth smolders.

By failing to act, we’re allowing parts of the globe to become uninhabitable. We’re sentencing millions to famine, disease and dislocation. And we’re saddling our “own” children (those of wealthy nations), with a debt of $585 trillion. That’s how much it will cost to mop up the extra CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere and return earth to livability, according to an international team of experts, headed by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

It’s the hottest summer on record, and the feds should be responding to the climate crisis in the same way that local governments have responded to the Lake Christine Fire.

But they aren’t.

I, for one, can’t imagine how to explain this to the children.

<<<<>>>

Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Independent on July 26, 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

On July 4, I stood beside Twin Lakes weeping. Mourning for our verdant Roaring Fork Valley, for friends, for the future of coming generations. The smoke signals pouring over Independence Pass were a harbinger of global warming, of the desertification of the American West.

Smoke from Lake Christine Fire rising over Independence Pass on July 4, 2018

From the Whitestar campground (40 miles away as the DC-10s fly), I could access only sketchy news. But I knew that Basalt, El Jebel and Missouri Heights were in peril. All I could do was to phone my husband and say “put out the welcome mat”.

Back in the valley two days later, I spotted Susan Proctor at the Aspen Music Tent. I gave her an emotional hug and heard an amazing evacuation tale.

While I had worried about many friends, I knew Susan would be on the horns of dilemma: she’s a llama “mama” and 400-pound camelids aren’t easy to move or shelter.

During the crisis, CARE took in refugee dogs and cats. The Garfield County Fairgrounds in Rifle housed more than 70 horses, donkeys and goats. But Susan has six llamas. Because her trailer holds only three at a time, transporting them to Rifle would require two trips and six hours’ driving. Not a speedy escape, and fires don’t wait.

As it turned out, Susan was saved by the kindness of a stranger.

Around noon on July 4, a “fairly new” friend called to offer Susan a place to stay, noting that if the llamas needed to move, she’d ask her landlord to lend pasture space. Susan wasn’t worried; the winds were blowing the fire away from her place.

Anxiety set in much later, when Susan’s tenant texted her an official pre-evacuation order. At 12:23 a.m.

My painting of Susan and her llama Stormy

Susan’s worry? “Llamas aren’t so easy to catch. They’re not known for obedience… and you can’t wake someone up at midnight to ask for help.”

About then, the newish friend texted Susan: “Checking in to see if you need help.”

Yeah, big time!

“I was panicked. Everything I was seeing from the driveway was terrifying,” Susan relates. “But llamas pick up on that. So I was telling myself  ‘you have to be calm’. It’s important to convey confidence so you can actually catch them.”

“The llamas were surprisingly unconcerned about mom appearing from the dark, wearing a headlamp, to give them a midnight snack. Even though that never happens.” Because Susan had recently shorn their heavy coats, the llamas were, luckily, still wearing halters. Which never happens either. The first three were uncharacteristically cooperative.

For the second batch, Rancher Rob volunteered his help. While returning — leading a convoy carrying both humans and critters — Rancher Rob volunteered that his house had two bedrooms. Why didn’t Susan just stay there, instead of the evacuation center?

My neighbor, Skye Skinner, housed nine humans, four canines and two felines, then offered space on the floor and room for tents outside. My friend Peter Westcott, who evacuated from Missouri Heights, said he and his wife Kate Friesen had “20 offers of places to stay.” So did my pals Steve and Annie Pfeiffer.

Susan stayed with Rancher Rob. She wrote, “Starting at 1 a.m., we evacuated six llamas, two dogs, two cats, one adult grandchild plus boyfriend, myself and my tenant while watching a wildfire advance. All of us sheltered by strangers! So grateful.”

As I have watched the DC-10s streaking overhead carrying red fire retardant, listened to the thrum of helicopters tirelessly dumping water, as I have driven by fire trucks from distant states, my eyes have often misted over. I can’t see the faces of the men and women braving the scorching flames, sweating in the merciless sun or flying off into the sunset at the close of an endless day, and I will never know their names. But I’m grateful that they chose to risk their lives for my loved ones, my community, my valley.

Nearly 500 firefighters from 20 states converged here. The federal InciWeb fire website lists 40 “incident cooperators” lending a hand. Countless “guvment” agencies — those faceless bureaucrats we’re so quick to criticize — have also convened to help us.

As I write this, 1,971 people have been evacuated and nearly 6,000 acres have been charred. Three homes were lost, but more than 925 were saved.

Friends and perfect strangers have rallied online to raise money for those who lost homes: the McCauleys, soccer coach Levi Applegate, the Martinez family with their four little girls, and Cleve Williams, the Basalt firefighter who lost his home while saving ours.

It’s ironic, but “Independence Day” 2018 taught me just how interdependent we all are. In time of need, we are saved not only by the bonds of community, but also by the kindness of strangers.

>><<<>>><<<>>>

Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on July 20, 2018

A silent, century-old mystery in Fisher Cemetery

“Neither could speak. Neither could hear. Silent on earth. More silent here.”

 These couplets, carved into twin headstones in the Fisher Cemetery, located in Spring Valley near Glenwood Springs, mark the graves of Nancy J. Gibbons (July 3, 1837 — September 23, 1894) and her husband, Fielden T. Gibbons (February 27, 1838 — February 26, 1894).

The words touched me. I lost much of my hearing to a high fever in infancy while living in rural Illinois, far from medical care. How much more difficult, I reflected, the lives of deaf-mutes would have been in an isolated frontier town. Glenwood, then called Defiance, was more a mining camp than a town during the Gibbonses lives. I wasn’t fully deaf; I could speak. But I still struggled in school in Denver in the 1950s. For a deaf-mute a century earlier, Defiance must have been utterly daunting.

Today, 15 percent of American adults have some hearing loss; roughly three of every 1,000 children are deaf. The rates were higher during the Gibbonses lives, before modern medicine curtailed many non-congenital causes of hearing loss: scarlet fever, meningitis, mumps and measles.

Even so, before special schools were founded, and before the electric hearing aid was invented in 1892, the deaf were profoundly isolated not only from “oral” society, but also from each other. Some never spoke to a single soul across an entire lifetime.

Early deaf education was motivated by a desire to save souls, and it began in this country with Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Congregationalist minister. Seeking to help his neighbor’s deaf, 9-year-old daughter, Gallaudet traveled to Paris in 1814 to meet Catholic priest Abbe Sicard and to learn Sicard’s sign language. In 1817, Gallaudet began to teach signing in America. Gallaudet’s son, Edward, established the nation’s first deaf college in 1864 with a charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Researcher Edward Fay documented only 10 marriages between deaf partners between 1801 and 1830, but 37 between 1831 and 1840, as special schools were established and the deaf began to meet. It’s likely that Nancy and Fielden met at a deaf school — but not in Colorado. This state’s first K-12 school for the deaf wasn’t established until 1874, when Nancy and Fielden were in their mid-30s.

So where did they meet?

Census records, an out-of-print book and research done by the Church of Latter-Day Saints provide some clues: Fielden was born in Indiana. Nancy Jane (Van Cleve) was born in Illinois. They married in 1886, in Morgan, Illinois.

A book called “Progressive Men of Western Colorado,” published in 1905, mentions Nancy as the daughter of Philip Van Cleve, who moved from Illinois to Glenwood Springs in 1879. Philip trapped and hunted on Cattle Creek in the 1880s, later working in Aspen and Leadville and prospecting near Carbondale “without success.”

But by the time her father moved to Glenwood, Nancy was 42. She was married, and the mother of at least four children.

It seems likely that Nancy, who was born in central Illinois, attended the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. That school, the nation’s seventh deaf school, opened in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1846, when Nancy was 9.

Since Jacksonville is located in Morgan County, where Nancy and Fielden were married, my guess is that they met at the school. They were living in Illinois when the youngest of their children was born in 1873. They likely moved to Colorado and established a homestead near Cattle Creek in the 1880s.

But why? What prompted two deaf-mutes to set out for a Wild West town filled with saloons, brothels, outlaws and gunfights? Why put down roots so close to the territory of the Fisher Gang, infamous local cattle rustlers and thieves? Does the Fisher-Van Cleve reservoir, located near Fisher Cemetery, indicate a family connection?

How did the deaf couple cope on the frontier, where survival would have required communication with oral neighbors?

Was it James Y. Van Cleve, who is buried next to the Gibbonses, who brought them here? Since no wife rests by James (April 3, 1813 — March 20, 1891), perhaps he was an older, bachelor brother or an uncle — a relative who lent Nancy and Fielden a helping hand.

What happened to the Gibbonses’ children? One record shows four offspring — Thomas, James, Mary and Susan — who all died in 1885. How? Did the Gibbonses lose all their children? Another archive mentions a younger child named Addie. Did she survive?

And how did Nancy and Fielden come to die within six months of one another in 1894?

Perhaps family descendants know. So far, the records I have found remain as mute to the answers as the Gibbonses remained a century ago.

>><<<>>><<<

This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on June 21, 2018.

A Bigly Blast of Buzzwords

In this column, I will be unpacking my thoughts on language and offering a few learnings predicated on a lifetime of work in the publishing vertical. For decades, we Americans have been pivoting away from perfectly good words and weaponizing others by disrupting their meanings and, in the process, leaving our listeners siloed and stunned. Because I’m completely woke to that problematic utilization, I’m sharing.

I trust that was about as clear as covfefe?

Truth is, I had to work hard to write that jargon-filled paragraph. While I love the sound and nuance of some seven-dollar words, I’m also a fan of plain speaking. “Checkerboard” communicates better than “tessellated,” but there’s really no substitute for “schadenfreude.”

I have been accused, with considerable justification, of being a member of the grammar police. The Urban Dictionary defines that term as someone who corrects bad grammar and spelling online. Guilty as charged.

When researching the term, I was relieved to learn that the Grammar Police are not affiliated with more-strident Grammar Nazis. I was also intrigued to learn that my stance is more akin to a Grammar Panther, one who recognizes more than one linguistic standard. Grammar panthers recognize the use of ebonics and colloquialisms and make sure folks get those right. Far be it from me to turn a “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” into a frightened mouse, but don’t misquote poet Robert Burns in my vicinity.

I will borrow from him to say that contemporary English has “gang aft agley.”

Late journalist Edwin Newman, one of my journalistic heroes, wittily warned us that our language was becoming trivialized trick phrases, jaded with jargon and gooped up with the gelatinous verbiage of Washington and the social sciences. In his two best-known books, “Strictly Speaking: Will America be the Death of English” (1974) and a “Civil Tongue” (1974), Newman deplored phrases of the ilk I threw around so unstintingly in my opening paragraph. He skewered that sort of language because “it is leaden, it is awkward, it groans with false dignity.”

Even though Newman was writing long before the invention of the internet, the smart phone and the Roomba — and many other tech inventions that have sparked the spread of a whole cross-platform plethora of buzzwords — nothing much has changed. Doublespeak and jargon rule.

There’s even an app for it. Nowadays, when you’re trapped in a boring dog-and-pony show, you can play Buzzwords Bingo on your smartphone. (Back in the day, we did that with paper and ink.)

Recently, on Facebook, my buddy Ken Ward invited friends to share the phrases that most irritated them. Ken’s list: “unpack, siloed, granular, weaponize, inflection point, game changer, pivot, optics, and legacy _________ (fill in the blank).”

Ken’s friends contributed a list of terms that made my skin itch: hack, life hacks, robust, trending, scalable, loop me in, going forward, orientated, linkage and utilize. (The word is “oriented.” Adding an extra syllable to “link” doesn’t make you smarter. And you don’t need to say you “utilized” an electric toothbrush to convince me that you went to college.) “Literally,” as it’s often thrown around, drives me figuratively up the wall. An example of this particular misuse: “The congressman was so agitated, he had us literally dancing on the ceiling.” (Those of us here “on the ground” think that gravity intervened.)

In the Facebook chain, Anaïs Tuepker noted, “Everybody with a new service or business seems to want to tell me about the ‘secret sauce’ that makes their school or hospital or some other thing so special.” Use this phrase, she warns, and “we can’t be friends.”

Michael Horan toted up these offending words: community, closure, journey, dialogue, honor, discourse and workshop, particularly when used as a verb. (“Let’s workshop this and unpack it down to a granular level.”)

Zach Roberts turned in a masterful mash-up by writing: “Let me unpack my thoughts on that. To not use certain words is to weaponize others. The real game-changer here would be to pivot to new ones, keep the old ones siloed and move away from those legacy media optics.”

Bingo!

In his books, the witty and articulate Edwin Newman lampooned the language of sportscasters, who frequently cross the foul line, linguistically speaking. He devoted a full chapter in one of his books to their foibles, titling it “Real Good Speed.” In the ’70s, “real good speed” meant fast.

If Newman hadn’t died in 2010, he would now be writing about how football commentators have discovered the word “wherewithal.” That word refers to financial resources. Novelist Henry Fielding used the word correctly in 1742 by writing, “When your ladyship’s livery was stript off, he had not wherewithal to buy a coat.” Nowadays, pundits use the word to describe players whose multi-million dollar contracts give them the wherewithal to buy my worldly goods several times over. In sentences that sound something like this: “He’s got the wherewithal to play real smash-mouth football.”

Maybe I’m just old school, operating on a legacy platform or heedless of what’s trending. Whatever. Buzzwords annoy me bigly.

This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on May 24, 2018.