Terms of Endangerment

“You’re not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.” That line, from the 1983 film “Terms of Endearment”, set my teeth on edge when I first heard it.

 Decades later, I think that Shirley MacLaine’s character, Aurora Greenway, had a point. It flies in the face of my feminist credentials to say so, but marrying the wrong man is probably the worst mistake a young woman can make.

Statistics show that most women aren’t special enough to overcome it. In addition to the emotional damage divorce wreaks on men and women both, divorced moms—who get custody in 82.5 percent of US divorces—face poverty at a rate nearly double that of divorced dads (31.2 percent versus 17.4 percent). Because women make 78 cents on a man’s dollar, and because only about 70 percent of moms receive all the child support courts order, red ink tends to flow. (Incidentally, women are no better at ponying up mandated child support. They fall short and/or default at about the same rate as men.)

Over the past few years, I have watched two divorced, local friends—Margot, the mother of two teens, and Gina, who has a six-year old daughter—struggle to make ends meet. Both earn too little in a valley where wages don’t match housing costs. Both experienced domestic violence. Both ran up huge legal bills. Both have juggled the competing demands of full-time work against the schedule-defying needs of their kids.

Margot’s ex drank, threatened her with his truck, failed to pay both child support and his mortgage, alienated his kids, frittered away money they needed for college, then finally committed suicide.

A five-year legal battle has pushed Gina into bankruptcy. Her ex has just been awarded joint custody, so Gina can’t move to find a better job. And she’s seriously anxious about co-parenting with a man who has been violent to her.

But Paula Oldham fared worse. When I first met her, Paula was behind bars, wearing an orange jumpsuit at the Marin County jail. I was there because my church friend Margi McCue, director of a battered women’s shelter, asked me, president of the San Francisco chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), to publicize Paula’s plight.

The two met when Paula checked into Margi’s shelter to escape domestic violence.

That happened a year before Paula disappeared into a mothers’ “underground railway”. Paula was convinced that Christina, a toddler, was being sexually abused by her father, Martin, during court-ordered visits. Despite documented domestic violence, despite physical evidence of child abuse, despite financially ruinous legal battles, Paula could find no way to protect her daughter. In desperation, she finally fled to France, accompanied by Margi. Both were seized by the FBI in Spain.

In 1994, Anna Quindlan wrote about the case in the New York Times, noting that Paula lost “her job as a vice president at Wells Fargo, her house…her salary, her savings. Her freedom.” Because the court had ordered shared custody, Paula was charged with kidnapping. She was sentenced to two years in prison. And she lost all her parental rights. Martin got full and unsupervised custody of his daughter.

I don’t know what became of Paula or Christina. I do know that decades of marching for equal pay, building shelters and educating judges haven’t changed the world enough. This month, Michigan Circuit Judge Gregory S. Ross forced the mother of an eight-year-old boy (I’ll call her Maria) into a shared custody arrangement with convicted sex offender Christopher Mirasolo.

Mirasolo raped Maria when she was 12. Hence the child. Recently, Maria applied for welfare. That triggered legal procedures designed to garnish paternal support to reimburse Sanilac County. After DNA testing proved paternity, Judge Ross ordered Mirasolo’s name to be added to the child’s birth certificate and granted him visitation rights. He also barred Maria from moving more than 100 miles away.

Moving was what my own mom—who worked nights as an ER nurse to fill gaps left by unpaid child support and who was stalked by my dad—did back in 1962.

I have a goddaughter, and my advice to her probably sounds like it came from Aurora Greenway. Ironically, it’s not far removed from what conservative Christians say too: “Character counts. Choose carefully, because you’re probably just one man away from poverty. Or worse.”

Frankly, we (I’m including a lot of fabulous, feminist fathers in this pronoun) might do better by teaching our girls how to choose well, rather than by trying to make the system work after they choose poorly.

Because, from where I sit, the system doesn’t look that much different than it did in 1994. Or even 1962.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on October 19 , 2017

How do we face the coming worst hard time?

“The Worst Hard Time” was the title of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Great American Dust Bowl — a disaster that devastated a 100-million-acre area that reached from Texas to Nebraska and included southeastern Colorado.

Between 1930 and 1940, dust storms ruined crops, destroyed livelihoods and caused “dust pneumonia” that killed as many as several thousand — no one has a sure tally. Roughly 2.5 million desperate people fled Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, creating the largest migration in American history.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy US Library of Congress.

The disaster resulted from four naturally occurring droughts that were worsened by federal land policies, farm economics and cultural beliefs. Many settlers lived by the motto that “rain follows the plow,” believing that agriculture would permanently affect the climate of the semi-arid Great Plains, improving it for farming.

As their plows broke the soil, the opposite happened. Topsoil fled in the wind as plows removed the native grasses that anchored it, rising in black blizzards that blew across the nation all the way to Washington, D.C. Forced out of business, farmers lost their livelihoods, their homes and sometimes their lives.

It wasn’t the first time that humans committed “ecocide.” It probably won’t be last time, or even the worst. That will probably occur in the lives of our descendants, who will have to deal with the effects of global warming: rising seas, flooding coastal cities, increasingly virulent storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires.

If that list of climate-related woes sounds a lot like this summer’s headlines, it’s not incidental. This is what scientists — the 98 percent who agree that human-caused climate change is real and happening now — have told us to expect.

Environmentally speaking, we’re living in the “end times” — the end of a geologic era that is going to impact everything from where we live to what we eat and how we make a living.

The question that faces us now is how to deal with it. Denial is a common human response; despair is another.

I have written about climate change before, and I have gotten both hate mail and denigrating comments in response. (Shooting the messenger is another common human response to bad news.) In reply to one column I wrote about global warming, one online reader scoffed, “I suppose this wouldn’t be happening if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump!”

That one gave me pause. While Trump’s climate denial has been infuriating in a “let them eat cake” kind of way, in the larger view, he’s a footnote. Over the past 250 years, much of human progress — the changes in diet, health, working conditions and material well-being that lifted us out of the brutish Middle Ages — has been due to the burning of fossil fuels. In terms of human lifetimes, two centuries is a vast span. In the geologic view, it’s the blink of an eye.

It has only been a couple of decades since we humans noticed that, climatically, we might be in for a hot time. Our collective response to that news, regardless of who has been in the White House, has been too little and too late to change the global climate trajectory.

Like farmers who reaped the whirlwind in the Dust Bowl, we humans will be forced to cope: to move, to alter public policies, to change technology, to somehow find the moral courage to move forward with generosity and inclusiveness while avoiding greed and despair.

I’m an agnostic. Sometimes, deep in the shadows of fear, I pray, but I have to address those entreaties “to whom it may concern.”

I have found myself both surprised and heartened by Pope Francis, who has said that global warming is a symptom of spiritual poverty — a myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change.

Francis has warned that the rich world’s pursuit of short-term economic gain in the face of environmental destruction is part of “a throwaway culture” that threatens not just unwanted things but also unwanted people — the poor, the elderly and the unborn — as waste. Frances has asked us to “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” entreating us to stand before God, or personal conscience, and examine the consumerist lifestyle that most of us live.

I’m 65. Although I won’t live long enough to fully reap the coming whirlwind, I struggle daily with how to spiritually face the coming worst hard time. Frankly, buying an electric car, putting up solar panels and growing vegetables has proved easier than avoiding selfishness and despair.

Results of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.


Still I’m heeding the pope’s challenge, making daily changes that light a candle of hope, and remembering that wherever we’re going as a species, we’re in this together. Courage and cooperation is all that will save us.

Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent September 21, 2017

Beach front property going cheap?

Psst, wanna buy some coastal property?

Despite the news of Harvey and Irma, I was surprised to learn that the husbands of two of my friends do—in Florida no less!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Yale Program on Climate Communication has found that nationally, while 69 percent of Americans think that global warming is real and dangerous, only 42 percent think it will harm them personally.

Personally, I think that buying property in Florida would hike the odds of personal harm considerably.

Real estate appraiser Orell Anderson, who works for Strategic Property Analytics in Laguna Beach, California, says that people “pay significant premiums to be on the water” but notes that most home-buyers arrive at the conclusion that storm-surge flooding “only happens to other people and not me.”

If you’re among them, you’d do well to visit the website CoastalRiskConsulting.com, owned by attorney Albert Slap, who lives in Snowmass Village, high and dry at 8,209 feet. Many of Slap’s clients are in Florida. Although cities and utilities form a large portion of his clientele, any potential property owner can plug an address into CRC’s website to discover its risk for storm-surge flooding and high winds. CRC mashes up scientific data from NOAA, USGS, USACE and other sources to create a comprehensive assessment of current and future flood risk to the property’s location.

Those risks are no secret. In April 2016, Sean Becketti, chief economist for government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, issued a (largely unpublicized) warning that owners ditching their coastal properties could trigger another nationwide mortgage meltdown.

 Even so, neither sellers nor realtors in Florida (or most other coastal states) are required to warn potential buyers of climate-change risks.

Those risks are many and interrelated: rising insurance costs, the eventual likelihood that mortgage companies will refuse to write 30-year loans in low-lying areas, enormous spikes in real estate taxes as cities and struggle to relocate utilities, roads, bridges, even airports. And not just in Florida. In the San Francisco Bay Area, all three airports are at risk from rising oceans. New York’s La Guardia could be swamped with as little as five feet of rising water.

Although few owners have so far sold coastal property due to these woes — the longer-term recovery pattern in New Orleans after Katrina and in New York after Sandy saw property values dropping in badly impacted neighborhoods but rising in those that were less affected and thus seen as “safer”— Albert Slap thinks that sell-offs are inevitably coming. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he opined that people will eventually insist on disclosure for homes that suffer regular floods, just as they have for the risks of asbestos and lead paint. Then dominoes will fall. “There will be a large number of homes that will lose substantial value, and [owners] will default on mortgages, if nothing is done to help them.”

That brings us to politics.

Right now, your right to build or buy in a flood zone is underwritten by the U.S. government. As the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “Let’s all acknowledge one reason for the vulnerability of Americans who live in low-lying coastal regions of the Sun Belt: The federal government has been paying people to locate there.” The payment isn’t explicit, the newspaper explains, but comes in the form of flood insurance underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

Under that program, private companies insure the homes, but the bills are ultimately paid by the Feds. After Sandy, Katrina and a rush of local floods, NFIP racked up a $25 billion deficit. Right now, the program, which was up for re-authorization this year, needs an infusion of cash.

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas, is making a push for reform. “The NFIP in its current form is unsustainable and perverse,” he said. “It is a government monopoly that subsidizes people to live in harm’s way. With pricing structures that do not reflect the reality of risk, it actually encourages the building and re-building — and re-building again — of homes and businesses in flood-prone areas.”

Truly evaluating that risk would include projecting the impact of ocean rise and global warming. That’s something that the current climate-change denying administration is not likely to do, despite the fact that Florida property-owners Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump were both personally impacted by evacuations during Hurricane Harvey.

If you’re actually considering buying property in Florida — taking a risk this fixed-income senior would never consider! — I’d advise consulting Albert Slap’s website first.

Either that, or rent a beach house. And travel light.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on September 21 , 2017

Lessons from ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’

The president slammed her hand down on the table and thundered, “These leaks must stop. I’m going to find out who’s leaking, and there will be serious — very serious — repercussions!”

Sound like our nation’s current president? It’s not. There are two tip-offs here: first the pronoun “her”, second, the language is far too coherent to have come from Trump.

But this column is a parable about leaks — and why Trump and Sessions can’t plug them. At Trump’s behest, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that that the F.B.I. had created a new counterintelligence unit to track down those who leak classified information and that the Justice Department “wouldn’t hesitate to bring criminal charges” against leakers.

 I suspect their results will be similar to those Mickey Mouse got as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. For those too young to remember Fantasia, apprentice Mickey is weary of fetching water. He casts a spell on a magical, bucket-carrying broom, then splits it with an axe. Each splinter becomes a new broom. The multiplying brooms each grab water pails, and with dizzying speed, flood the place.

That’s pretty much what happened when the president of the private university I worked for threatened dire consequences for leaking. The president – I will call her Judy White – had hired me to promote the university to the media. My first day on the job, a long-time faculty member pulled me into a broom closet (ironic but true!) and asked if President White had shown me the university’s accreditation report.

She hadn’t.

Within hours, the report was in my hands.

Soon, other faculty and board members began making clandestine visits and inviting me off campus “for coffee”.

The report made clear that accreditation was hanging by a thread, the administration had somehow blown an $8 million endowment, its computerized enrollment system didn’t work and faculty on multiple campuses had taken official votes of “no confidence” in President White. None of this had been mentioned when I had been hired to serve as media counsel, a position somewhat analogous to the White House press secretary.

Back in 1946, New York Times political reporter James Reston observed that “governments are the only vessels that leak from the top.” That’s been true through multiple administrations. Truman, Bush and Clinton fought leaks. Via Watergate, Nixon found that hiring “plumbers” can backfire rather dramatically. The Obama administration used the Espionage Act to prosecute eight individuals for disclosing sensitive information, more than all previous presidencies combined. Not one president stopped leaks.

As Reagan once replied when asked how his administration could control leaks, “I’ve been told you don’t. Everybody who has been around here for a while tells me it is just the nature of the place.”

I haven’t served as a governmental press secretary, but my time in academia revealed why those dedicated to public service would risk both careers and censure to leak information; ethics.

In the university’s case, the underlying issue was safeguarding the nonprofit status of a school that idealistic faculty members had devoted many (underpaid) years serving. President White, pressed by finances, was attempting to sell the place to a for-profit corporation. Every inquiry she opened was leaked.

Faculty members, board members and staff who divulged (and sabotaged) her quest did so out of a deep commitment to teaching and public service, ethical values that were being threatened. They held that converting publicly-held assets for private profit was unethical. They acted on values they held sacred. They considered themselves whistle-blowers. And they proved unstoppable, ultimately toppling the president.

Those in the Trump administration who are handing news to the press — recordings of back-room meetings on healthcare, hastily written (and badly spelled) executive orders, transcripts of presidential phone calls, accounts of White House infighting — are doing so largely out of ethics and professionalism. And that’s why they won’t stop.

As David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic, “Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset.” Fear of a possible “Russian mole” in the White House is prompting intelligence leaks.

Similarly, at the EPA, staffers fear that climate-denial policies and Scott Pruitt’s leadership amount to fiddling while Rome burns. But it’s not Rome, it’s the planet and the future of our species. That’s why a draft report that concludes that Americans are already suffering the effects of global warming — including Sourcerer’s Apprentice-style flooding in coastal cities — was secretly advanced to the New York Times.

Ironically enough, for a guy who got famous yelling “You’re fired” on a TV show called “The Apprentice”, Trump, like Nixon before him, may find that his quest to plug leaks will land him in hot water.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on August 17, 2017

Running the Nation Like a Business – A Modest Proposal

During the campaign, candidate Trump vowed to “run government like a business,” and in March, he tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner to lead an office that would apply business ideas to government.

Déjà vu! That announcement reminded me of a publishing gig where I discovered the company’s nepotism only after the editor-in-chief abruptly and mysteriously “stepped down”. I was stunned; the editor had worked for the company for seven years and seemed to be the only manager who actually knew the publishing trade. Privately, I learned that she was not only the sole person in management with a journalism background, she was also the only one not related by birth or marriage! She was pushed aside in favor of someone’s wife, a recent grad who had about as much qualification for editing as Ivanka Trump has for international diplomacy.

From the get-go, Trump has skirted federal nepotism laws by appointing (but not paying) family members. Although Eric Trump recently called nepotism “a beautiful thing”, the family-run businesses I have known have usually been far from models of efficiency, competence or legal compliance. Unqualified employees who score jobs via “pull”, rather than by pushing themselves to master a professional discipline, fall prey not only to conflict-of-interest misfeasance, they can also commit nonfeasance and malfeasance out of sheer ignorance. Consider, for example, a son who fails to see the loyalty conflict inherent in meeting with a Russian lawyer, or how failing to report that meeting could compromise one’s security clearance.

Last week, when Sean Spicer resigned, I was reminded of yet another company I worked for, the one where my boss proved to be a pathological liar. Although I have wondered how and why any journalist would choose to work as Trump’s press secretary—an obvious career-endangering move—I have felt sorry for Spicer due to having worked for a similarly deceitful leader.

I remember walking out of a cabinet meeting and minutes later having my boss, the university’s president, say, “Don’t do what we just agreed to. Put out a notice that says this instead.” I obeyed. Moments later, my phone rang. It was the university’s lawyer. “Why did you just email the whole university contradicting the plan?” she fumed. I explained. She sighed and said, “Welcome to my world.”

Having worked for a passive/aggressive exec who lied and couldn’t remember major plans—like whether she had, or had not, instructed staff to close a money-losing campus—I think I know how Spicey’s world must have felt during these past six months.

Frankly, my work experiences haven’t made me a fan of running government like a business. In addition to the bosses above, I have also worked for a groper, a fraud, an embezzler, and several execs who thought the law didn’t apply to them. (Sound familiar?)

But even the good businesses I have worked for—and there have been quite a few—make bad models when it comes to government. For one thing, must focus on profits, valuing short-term stock prices over long-term investments. Short-term thinking would never have gotten the Grand Coulee Dam built or put a man on the moon. Then too, how would one measure the profit in preventing terrorism? The number of people deported? The number of attacks that don’t happen?

Many tasks wind up in the public sphere precisely because their results are difficult to measure or because their work doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lend itself to making a profit.

Then too, many profitable businesses were built by ruthless tycoons, buccaneers who skirted or scrapped inconveniences like fair pay, safety conditions, pensions, overtime, and child labor laws. A corporate raider like Carl Icahn, who stripped the assets of TWA, would provide a case in point.

Looking at Trump’s cabinet appointments, perhaps the hostile takeover is the true underlying model?

If that’s the case, we should take USA Today columnist Steven Strauss’ advice, following his modest proposal for stopping the “hemorrhage of cash in money-draining operations” by selling the low-performing states. Starting with Kentucky.

In 2017, WalletHub identified Kentucky as the state most dependent on the federal government. In fiscal 2016, the feds collected $33 billion in taxes there but spent $89 billion, giving Kentucky a subsidy of $56 billion. (By contrast, Massachusetts paid in $109 billion and took back $62 billion.)

I say, if Kentucky goes, Mitch McConnell should go too.

Nothing personal of course. No competent corporate exec would promote a manager who lost money on that scale. But of course, we’re talking Trump here as the US CEO, and I have never understood how six bankruptcies and 3,500 business lawsuits counted as qualifications for the job in the first place.









The Long Shadow of World War I

Martha Downer Slusser, who stayed home with four children while her husband, Thomas Harry Slusser, went off to fight WW1. T.H. Slusser saved his letters home and later published them in a book called “Letters to Her”.

One hundred years ago, my grandfather was leaving his wife, his four small children and his law firm to join the “war to end all wars”.

The trenches where he would soon serve had been dug nearly two years earlier. On July 12 and 13, 1917, the Germans began bombarding allied troops there with mustard gas. Nearly one million French soldiers had already been killed. Conditions were so horrific that several French Army mutinies had already occurred.

Thomas Harry Slusser didn’t have to go to France. At 36, he was too old for the first draft, and his children, aged two to nine, entitled him to defer military service even after that. Still, he signed up, spent four months at the Fort Sheridan officer’s training camp, then sailed overseas on Jan. 7, 1918.

T.H. Slusser’s 1907 law school graduation photo.

Seven months later, the Chicago Evening American printed a front-page story calling him a hero and running his photo under the headline, “Wife and Four Children Couldn’t Keep this Soldier at Home.”

A century later, one might wonder why not?

The T.H. Slusser I knew was patriotic, iron-willed, and high-minded, rather like President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had won the 1916 election vowing to maintain neutrality, but Germany’s actions — atrocities in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare — dragged him inexorably toward war. Duty and honor must have similarly pulled my grandfather toward Europe’s eddy of blood, but I suspect that there was more to it.

By the time the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson and his administration were openly questioning the loyalty of German-Americans. The attorney general approved a plan to use volunteers to gather information on German immigrants and native-born German-Americans suspected of disloyalty. From that volunteer group grew the American Protective League, a vast network of 200,000 untrained, amateur detectives. The APL functioned as a semi-official, but often uncontrolled, branch of the FBI’s forerunner, the Bureau of Investigation.

Although my grandfather was a fifth-generation American, sometimes having a German name could be enough to prompt the APL to investigate one’s private affairs.

Chicago, where my grandfather’s law firm was located, was also home to Chicago ad executive A. M. Briggs, the man who created the APL. The town was a hotbed of anti-German sentiment: Lubeck, Frankfort, and Hamburg streets were renamed Dickens, Charleston, and Shakespeare. German Hospital became Grant Hospital. Famed conductor Frederick Stock, who was born in Germany, was forced to step down from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until he finalized his naturalization papers.

Across the nation, German-Americans were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem. Thousands were forced to buy war bonds. Fearing sabotage, the Red Cross barred those with German surnames. Churches were vandalized. Employers received telephone calls asking if they still had “that German spy” on the payroll.

Like the African-American Buffalo soldiers and the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, German-Americans were subjected to “friendly fire” from fellow citizens. Having sworn to uphold the constitution when he was admitted to the bar, my attorney grandfather must have keenly felt a need not just to profess loyalty, but to prove it.

By June 1917, the first American division reached France. By year’s end, 175,000 Americans were serving there; 18 months later, the American Expeditionary Force numbered nearly two million men.

 T.H. Slusser was among them. He became a commander in the First Light Infantry on November 27, 1917. His unit joined the 126th Infantry in the Aisne-Marne offensive in Alsace, then marched with Army of Occupation in Germany after the armistice on November 11, the day that would become my birthday 33 years later.

In its 1918 article, quoting an army field dispatch sent from “somewhere in France”, the Chicago Evening American reported that “Lieutenant Thomas Harry Slusser and Lieutenant Otto H. Buder of Kalamazoo, Michigan “distinguished themselves by charging across an open field swept by machine gun fire.”

As PBS has aired “The Great War”, I have reflected on how much WWI shaped the world we live in today. Bellicose leadership and conflict abroad can still inspire hatred and violence at home. Today, while our allies have reason to question our nation’s commitment to live up to Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy,” I believe that most Americans still aspire to that noble goal.

WWI had an important effect on me too. Had my grandfather not survived his machine gun charge 100 years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this column today. My father wasn’t born until 1925, six years after Thomas Harry Slusser returned from the trenches of France.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on July 20, 2017

Paris Climate Pact Matters to the Economy

I didn’t need a scientist or even the Colorado Department of Transportation to tell me that global warming was real. I’m 65, a skier and a Colorado native. I have seen the evidence accumulating all my life.

I got a reminder last week when I noticed that the Fall River exit sign on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs now references only Alice and St. Mary’s. During my childhood, it also included “St. Mary’s Glacier.” Apparently CDOT doesn’t number among the governmental agencies now denying climate change.

As the Trump administration has disavowed the Paris climate accord, vowed to cut funding for climate-monitoring satellites and ocean buoys and undermined the EPA, my response has swung from heated anger to floods of despair. My moods mirror what meteorologists are recording: wild weather fluctuations, early springs, alarming increases in drought, flood and wildfire. Science has linked all these changes to the greenhouse gases humans have been injecting into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

But on June 1, Trump bailed on the treaty limiting those emissions. The reason, he says, is that the accord “disadvantages” the U.S. and causes “lost jobs and lower wages.”

But here in the Roaring Fork Valley, most of our jobs rely, in one way or another, on snow. That many of us owe our livelihoods to Aspen’s robust ski economy should be apparent. If Aspen failed to open one winter, what would happen to local restaurants, nightspots, clothiers? Not to mention our building trades, real estate and property values?

But it’s not just skiing that relies on snow. CU Boulder’s Environmental Center reports that 70 percent of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. When we don’t have enough to meet the needs of fishermen, whitewater enthusiasts, ranchers, farmers and urban dwellers, we pump groundwater and, astonishingly, supplement the runoff with water from “ice holds” across the state.

Colorado holds 14 named glaciers and more than 135 “permanent” snow or ice bodies. Like St. Mary’s Glacier, they’re all shrinking. Of course, glaciers have retreated before and will return — sometime. Geologically, 100,000 years is no big thing, but we humans don’t have that much time to spare.

On the Aspen-Snowmass website, SkiCo puts it bluntly: “Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, not to mention the ski industry. Because the problem is so big, the fix won’t come through changing light bulbs; government must act.”

The Paris accord represented 190 nations that promised to act to mitigate climate change. Sen. Michael Bennet said that bailing on the accord was “a catastrophic mistake,” and Gov. John Hickenlooper likened it to “ripping off your parachute when you should be pulling the ripcord.” Rep. Scott Tipton said nothing much about it and Sen. Cory Gardner, who generally opposes greenhouse regulation, quibbled about the treaty not having been sent to Congress for debate.

I, for one, cannot fathom how anyone who cares about jobs in Colorado can fail to also care about our climate. As state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver said, “It’s our collective livelihood … The Paris accords are about protecting people. Declining economies and scarce resources are certain outcomes. Marginalized communities in urban and rural Colorado will be hit the hardest.”

In the coming decades, none of us has a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping the impacts. New York City has spent millions elevating power stations after Hurricane Sandy flooded a substation, causing a five-day blackout in Manhattan. Some coastal Florida and California homeowners have already been priced out of flood insurance. And Coloradans will be seeing the cost reflected in both wildfire insurance and water bills.

Collectively, many Colorado elected officials are moving to fill the Hurricane Sandy-sized hole in leadership left by the Trump administration. I’m thankful to know that mayors from Denver, Aspen, Boulder, Breckenridge, Edgewater, Lafayette, Lakewood, Longmont and Vail will continue to uphold the Paris accord. And that more than 40 Colorado elected officials attended a May conference convened by Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron where they began to create a compact that will enable their towns, cities and counties to collaborate on climate mitigation actions.

Little we do will be remembered after our lifetimes. But as I nervously watch summer nibbling away the snow on Sopris, I’m reminded of an aphorism: “Life is like a blanket of snow. Be careful how you step on it. Every step will show.”

It already does show in our on-again-off-again springs, our shortened ski seasons, the periodic droughts in our reservoirs. I’m praying that we’re careful, mindful and take the right steps in slowing this irreversible catastrophe. Because the steps we take here and now will show far beyond our lifetimes.

The Trouble with Pre-Existing Conditions

Last week, during a Glenwood Springs town hall meeting with Senator Michael Bennet, many locals worried about congress replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Bennet thinks the senate will consider the replacement, the American Health Care Act (ACHA), sometime before July 4.

Although individual market ACA choices haven’t been good in our valley — along with a couple other mountain counties, we pay the highest premiums in the nation — Senator Bennet sees nothing in ACHA that’s going improve our condition.

I’m not surprised.

Before aging into Medicare last fall, I repeatedly wondered whether the high cost and low quality of care available locally would eventually force me to leave this valley. I wasn’t alone; I know several people here who pay more for ACA insurance than they pay for housing!

While the proposed ACHA does prevent health insurers from outright denying coverage to people with “pre-existing conditions,” it doesn’t limit costs. State-run “high-risk pools” (which existed pre-ACA) are proposed to help, but according to an AARP report, premiums could reach as high as $27,500 a year. That’s in states that actually have pools (not all states must run them) and in states that don’t run out of money (which is what happened pre-ACA.)

ACHA wouldn’t improve much on the situation I faced when I moved here in 2011, prior to landing a job with health care. Because I had worried about losing coverage when I left my California job, I had stockpiled medications for two pre-existing conditions, asthma and depression. I had received excellent medical care at Kaiser San Francisco for 28 years, courtesy of various employers. That had enabled me to seek help for my two pre-existing conditions, but it also meant that they were on my medical records.

Sure enough, they kept me from getting medical insurance prior to passage of ACA.

Ironically, neither of my pre-existing conditions now exist. It turned out that the asthma was sparked by polluted urban air and allergies to plants that don’t grow here. The depression was largely a reaction to San Francisco’s persistent fog. The prescriptions I had stockpiled — a year’s worth of drugs that would have would cost over $5000 under that policy I couldn’t get — wound up being thrown out. What a sorry waste!

But ACHA could return us to the bad old days. While only about one out of every 33 babies born each year in US each year has a birth defect, from then on out, life is full of dings and scrapes. The Kaiser Health Foundation estimates that 27 percent of adults under 65 have health conditions that would have made them uninsurable under pre-ACA underwriting practices. “Pre-existing conditions”, as variously defined by ACHA health insurers, would include about 50 health issues ranging from AIDS and acne to high cholesterol and cancer.

That’s no big worry for those covered by employer-sponsored health care, but life tends to be what happens when you’re making other plans. Nearly 20 percent of Americans lost jobs during the last recession and can testify that the timing of a job change—and hence the need to apply for individual health insurance — is not necessarily something one can control. Thus, the time when a “pre-existing condition” starts to exist can be rather arbitrary.

Biologically, the propensity to develop many medical conditions exists from birth. Differences in DNA do increase or decrease our chances of getting a disease such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s or breast cancer. Fortunately, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) has prevented discrimination by health insurers and employers since May 2008. Recent political discussion hasn’t included comments about pre-conditions written into our DNA, but the ACHA discussion and prospects for coming generations do prompt me to ponder what health care is for.

In 2015, a Bloomberg report ranked 55 developed nations on health care efficiency—comparing life expectancy, health care costs per capita and costs as a percentage of GDP. The US fell near the bottom, at number 50. A 2012 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association asserted that waste—including unnecessary treatments, overpriced drugs and procedures and under-use of preventive care—makes up 34 percent of total US health care spending!

As former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, recently observed in a talk at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, no patient would opt for getting treated for a disease over avoiding the disease altogether. But our “health care system” routinely offers incentives that prioritize illness over health.

The problem, I suspect, has to do with pre-existing conditions: 1) insurance companies (and big pharma) and 2) their outsized contributions to our elected officials. Since they get rich when we get sick, there’s little incentive for them to diagnose, let alone cure, the problem.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on June 15, 2017

Lives of the Rich and Infamous

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

Or whoever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thoughts on Mothering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elena and her partner Jean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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