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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

There is No “Away” But There is Western Slope Recycling

Our handyman, Tim, warned us we’d have to pay a fee when he took our defunct microwave “away” to the dump.

That worried me, because in environmental terms, there’s no such place as “away.” The earth is a closed loop system. Because so little can get in or out, mankind’s junk isn’t leaving. Check out http://www.stuffin.space and you can see more than 100,000 manmade objects, many defunct, orbiting the earth in real time.

Manmade junk amounts to a huge problem: Mount Everest is littered with thawing fecal matter and discarded climbing gear. The Great Lakes are awash in microfibers from fleece. The Pacific Ocean’s garbage vortex is now twice the size of Texas.

The U.S. exports 80 percent of its old electronics to developing countries. For example, in Agbogbloshie, Ghana, barefoot children mine tons of e-waste at a gargantuan dump locally termed “Sodom and Gomorah.” They’re looking for computers and cellphones so their parents can burn the plastic and drench the circuit boards in cyanide to extract gold. Their efforts may also bring them asthma, pneumonitis, tremors, neuropsychiatric problems, convulsions, coma, even death. Still, as a recent World Bank Group white paper noted, at least 15 million people worldwide survive by recycling dangerous e-waste. “Many poor people, faced with a choice between starving or waste-picking, choose the latter.”

But it’s not just the poor who prowl e-dumps. It’s also thieves. Smart devices that have been sent “away” can come back to haunt us in the form of identity theft. That’s why there’s an old computer lying in the crawl space under my house. It’s nearly impossible to truly scrub personal data off of e-devices.

For personal as well as health and environmental reasons, I don’t want my discarded devices added to some malignant midden in Asia or Africa. So I worried for weeks about where Tim took that microwave.

 

It’s increasingly difficult to send junk away to places like Ghana, India and China.

This January, China enacted a new law barring the import of plastic, mixed paper, old clothing and other materials from American recycling programs. The problem isn’t just that badly sorted recycling often contains toxic waste. It’s also that China, which imported $5.6 billion in U.S. scrap in 2016, is now producing its own electronic products—and its own electronic waste.

The most available choices for dealing with the worldwide trash problem involve local efforts. A good example comes from Mumbai, where about 80 baby Olive Ridley turtles recently scuttled across a beach into the Arabian Sea. Five years ago, they wouldn’t have made it one foot. With garbage piled five feet deep in places, Versova Beach ranked as one the world’s most polluted oceanfronts.

Then, in 2015, Mumbai lawyer Afroz Shah launched recruited volunteers who worked every weekend for two years removing a staggering 5,000 tons of litter in what the U.N. termed the world’s largest beach clean-up.

There might be some good tidings for the Pacific garbage patch. In 2016, Japanese researchers discovered a bacteria that can eat non-biodegradable plastic. This spring, an international research team led by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory — yes, the folks in Boulder — discovered an Ideonella sakaiensis variant that can break down those ubiquitous polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic water bottles. That moves scientists closer to solving the titanic problem of discarded plastics that take centuries to biodegrade.

There might even be hope for e-waste. Manufacturers in China, India and other developing countries are starting to view e-scrap as a valuable commodity. In recent years, the rising demand for, and value of, the “rare earth” elements used in laptops and cellphones has risen, placing the cost of recycling closer to mining. Policies encouraging sustainable “harvesting” of rare and valuable raw materials have already been adopted in Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

There’s also some good news about local recycling. It’s growing.

Seven years ago, a recycling professional I met at networking event told me that virtually nothing got recycled on Colorado’s Western Slope. Because we didn’t have local recycling facilities, everything had to be trucked over the passes to Denver. For most of our junk, that’s just too far away to be economical.

Hence my concern about trashing that microwave.

When I asked Tim whether it wound up in what’s euphemistically called a “landfill,” he said, “No.” He took it to Trinity Recycling, which serves the Roaring Fork and Eagle valleys from Gypsum and Glenwood Springs. Trinity disassembles appliances, metal sheds and filing cabinets, copper pipes and wires, cars, trucks and even old radiators and recycles the metals locally.

That’s better news than I was expecting, so I think I will just put that rant about why that three-year-old microwave couldn’t be fixed away for another column, another day.

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This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on April 18, 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.