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.








Beating the High-Altitude Blues

“Send me kitty pictures. I’m seriously bummed by the news.”

I received that plea from a Facebook pal, and while I’m happy to post pet photos, I also find myself frequently giving advice to friends battling the blues. In brief, it is:

  • Go outside and get some sun.
  • Go exercise.
  • Meet a friend.
  • Plan something to look forward to.
  • Avoid alcohol.

Those suggestions aren’t from me, they’re medical advice from a Ph.D. psychotherapist at Kaiser-Permanente. I’ll call him “Doc.”

While living in San Francisco in my 40s, I suffered a major depression — one that felt like a 50-pound weight lodged on my chest, one that dimmed the lights and caused me to cry at the slightest provocation. I had a similar depressive bout as a teen.

When I finally sought help at Kaiser, I was advised to join a work-stress group, begin anti-depression meds and take a six-month class in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Doc taught the CBT course. Having suffered himself, he humorously observed that, as a teenager, he’d unwittingly hit on the perfect recipe for creating depression: He’d lock himself in his bedroom, pull down the shades, drink beer, avoid everyone and listen to Leonard Cohen records. (With recent controversy over the Netflix show “13 Reasons,” which is about bullying and suicide, it’s important to note that suicide is the third leading cause of death among those 10-14 and second among those 15-34.)

CBT is based on the principle that thoughts impact our feelings and actions. External events — jobs, relationships, politics, the news — are stressors and do play an important role. But we can moderate our responses to them by changing the way we think and care for ourselves. As Doc explained, emotions, physical health and social well-being form a triangle; our thoughts influence all three sides. Push on any side and it reshapes the whole triangle.

CBT worked amazingly well for me. I now rarely think about suicide (that, along with constant feelings of sorrow or emptiness, and losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, are common depression symptoms). I’m now mostly upbeat, despite living in one of the eight intermountain states sometimes called “the Suicide Belt.”

A couple of summers ago, while working at Eagle Crest Nursery, I was approached by an elderly couple wanting to return a carload of annuals. They apologetically explained that while there was nothing wrong with the plants, their daughter, who lived in Aspen and had purchased the annuals, had committed suicide. Stunned, I did all I could to help.

Aspen’s suicide rate is roughly three times the national average. As noted in a 2014 series on suicide published by the Post Independent, mountain resort communities often have a party lifestyle. “Many move here for that lifestyle with dreams of being a ski bum and living life as if it’s a permanent vacation,” the article explained. While many “move here to get away from problems they faced elsewhere,” that never happens. We all carry our issues along with us wherever we go.

High-altitude living may cause additional problems. As reported in LiveScience online, researchers at the University of Utah and Tufts University found that when exposed to high-elevation conditions, female rats exhibited more depression-like behavior. Dr. Perry F. Renshaw, the study’s lead author, noted that greater high-altitude suicide rates stemmed from multiple factors including “poverty, rural residence, low-population density, gun ownership and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disease.”

Since suicide rates are higher among young people, a youthful population also plays a role.

If you’re feeling seriously depressed, our area does have good sources of support: The Aspen Hope Center reaches out to residents both in Aspen and beyond. Mind Springs Health has locations in Aspen, Glenwood Springs and Rifle. Colorado Crisis Services is always available toll-free at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).

If you’re feeling down but not at the professional-help stage, my offhand-but-clinically-proven advice still stands: Turn off the TV. Put away the smartphone. Get off of social media. Take a hike in the sunshine, preferably with a friend. The reason: Clinical studies have found that regular exercise can be as effective as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the antidepressants most prescribed for depression.

And kick it up a notch from kitten photos.

Contact with pets lowers blood pressure and can reduce depression. So take your dog for a walk. Or take your neighbor’s dog for a walk. Or volunteer at the local animal shelter. You can probably even post kitty photos for them. Litters of kittens were being born in Colorado around mid-March, and very soon, local shelters will be filled with hundreds of furry anti-depressants.

Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent May 17, 2017

In Search of a Golden Rule

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported on the probable impact of the first TrumpCare bill, I wrote this rant:

“What the CBO measures is dollars. What it doesn’t measure is human misery: The leading cause of bankruptcy in this country is medical debt. The most contentious marital issue is money. Divorces rise in times of financial distress, and divorce, in turn, is the greatest cause of financial distress among women, especially those with children. Suicide rates rise at times of recession and depression, measured all the way back into the 1930’s.

What we’re talking about here is death, illness, divorce, homelessness and suicide. None of that is quantified in the CBO report — even though it probably can be projected and measured.”

When TrumpCare II premiers, we’ll probably be led off track with similar projections.

Years ago, in GE management school, I was taught that “what gets measured gets done.” But what we measure can be misleading, and what we fail to measure can be crucial.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy famously said that the Gross National Product (GNP) “does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Kennedy came to that view after a 1967 helicopter ride with economist Hazel Henderson. Years ago, at a Healthy Cities conference, I heard Henderson make a statement I have never forgotten. She said that in terms of GNP or GDP, the most profitable shipping run in history had been the “voyage of the Exxon Valdez.”

The reason: those measures “count ‘bads’ as well as ‘goods.’” As Mark Thomas explained in a January 2016 Moneywatch column, “When an earthquake hits and requires rebuilding, GDP increases. When someone gets sick and money is spent on their care, it’s counted as part of GDP. But nobody would argue that we’re better off because of a destructive earthquake or people getting sick.”

But that’s precisely what many of our elected leaders have been doing. Consider what House Speaker Paul Ryan said about TrumpCare in March: “What I’m encouraged with is… that the CBO is telling us…it’s going to lower premiums 10 percent. It stabilizes the market, it’s a $1.2 trillion spending cut, a $883 billion tax cut and $372 billion in deficit reduction.” By saying virtually not a word about health, wasn’t Ryan arguing that we’re better off with people getting sick?

Recently, James Martin, a Jesuit priest “who considers himself a capitalist” wrote about public reaction to passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged bloodied and screaming from a United Airlines flight. “When we watch the video of the event, something in us says, ‘That’s not right’,” he writes. “Pay attention to that feeling. It is conscience speaking.” What sparked outrage, Martin opined, wasn’t just recalling the frustrations we have all felt in flying, “but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity”.

I don’t know if we can measure human dignity, but there are gauges for measuring human well-being: The triple bottom line used by socially responsible businesses is one; it includes social, environmental and financial outcomes. Another, the World Bank’s Wealth Index, defines 60 percent of a nation’s wealth as “human capital” such as social organization, skills and knowledge; 20 percent as “environmental capital” and 20 percent as “built capital”, such as factories and financial capital. The Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life scale, developed in part by Hazel Henderson, includes 12 indicators: education, employment, energy, environment, health, human rights, income, infrastructure, national security, public safety, recreation and shelter.

Unfortunately, in our current political climate, I see little progress on most of these scales. I hear almost no discussion of them. The only rule is financial, and the golden rule is interpreted as “the guy with the gold makes the rule”.

Recently, the words of poet William Wordsworth have been ringing in my head:

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

It seems to me, if we are to have a democracy, if we are to have an environment that supports future generations, we must be about more than “getting and spending”. We must not only recapture our hearts, we must also measure and weigh in our public discourse those things that make life worthwhile.

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

Fleeing the Surly Skies

Five years ago I elected to stop flying, at least for non-business trips.

I made that decision largely for environmental reasons. A single jet flight can wipe out all the contributions our plug-in/hybrid car and solar panels make toward reducing my annual carbon footprint.

But there were personal reasons, too. My airline experiences pale in comparison to the United Airlines passenger who was “reaccommodated” recently by being bloodied and dragged from a plane. Still, the last two business flights I took turned out to be aversion therapy underscoring my resolution to avoid “pleasure” flights.

It’s a big change for me; I was once a globetrotter. My passport carries stamps from 36 countries, and neither of those recent business flights ranks as my worst. That distinction goes to a 1978 Aeroflot jaunt from Moscow to Kiev: The “decadent” novel I was reading was confiscated. I had to hold myself upright because my seat back collapsed entirely. And for the entire turbulent two-hour flight, a passenger’s vomit remained untouched in the aisle.

But Aeroflot was an anomaly. I flew dozens of different airlines during the 1970s, enjoying nearly all my travels. What’s more, during grad school in Chicago, I earned freelance money by writing travel brochures, ironically enough, for United Airlines. I was treated well, and I was honestly able to extol the virtues of flying to Hawaii to surf or jetting to Colorado for a ski vacation. Back then, I believed in “flying for pleasure.”

But the thrill has gone.

Not coincidentally, my fond memories date from prior to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Deregulation occurred in stages through 1984, lowering overall fares about 25 percent (adjusted for inflation). As a result, rural areas and small airports suffered high fares and infrequent flights, while large, urban hubs experienced the reverse. Cheaper fares roughly doubled the number of people who could afford to fly.

Deregulation also led to an airline shakeout. Today, four major airlines­ — United, Delta, American and Southwest — account for roughly 80 percent of domestic air travel.

In the ’70s, planes flew about half-full. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the airplane “load factor” for 2016 was 82.76 percent. Domestic airlines now enjoy record profits, both because they’re carrying more passengers and because they’ve learned to manage what has become a price-sensitive commodity. Their business tactics include variable fares, charging for everything from extra bags and headphones to bottled water, and overbooking to ensure full planes.

Despite widespread grousing from consumers who dislike nickel-and-diming, bumping and crowding, the industry is sure that these aggravations, like the flurry of bad publicity surrounding musician Dave Carroll’s 2008 YouTube video “United Breaks Guitars,” won’t impact consumer behavior for long.

I won’t easily forget Dr. Dau’s shrieks; I had to turn off the sound to even watch that video. But all the airlines are pretty sure that travelers forget; experience shows that passengers will opt for airline X’s $199 fare over airline Y’s $200 fare in a month or so, despite today’s uncomfortable experiences or negative publicity.

My own airline travails pale in comparison to Dau’s, but they have contributed to me opting out of the surly skies entirely. Next month, my husband and I are making a business trip to San Francisco, and we’re traveling on Amtrak.

Environmentally, that’s a good choice. If we flew the round trip, we’d produce .8 tons of greenhouse emissions. Our plug-in electric/hybrid Chevy Volt, which has achieved a lifetime fuel average of 76 mph over 25,727 miles, would generate .24 tons of carbon. Our train trip will generate about .08 tons of greenhouse emissions.

Of course, the 26-hour rail trip takes longer than flying.

Then again, maybe not so much.

On my last San Francisco trip, I was bumped from seven planes on two airlines and made three trips through security. While American treated me far better than United treated Dr. Dau, my trip did feature a screaming match. After American bumped us from its fourth plane, workers informed us that they had no more flights. We would need to “come back tomorrow.”

I angrily responded that abandoning my 83-year-old husband overnight in the terminal without luggage was not an option. After a heated, hour-long exchange, the gate agent finally walked us to another terminal and onto another airline.

Because that plane was late, we missed connections. All told, it took us 19 hours to get home from San Francisco. (Not counting a drive back to Aspen a couple days later to retrieve our lost luggage, which had taken a trip to Dallas.)

So this time, I will be missing the excitement of air travel. But probably not much.

Guest Column published in the Post Independent on April 16, 2017.

National Security: Mending Fences Versus Building Walls

Last week, lured by abnormally-early spring weather, I started repairing the stone walls that enclose my raised garden beds. This spring task was memorialized by Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” a poem that talks about two neighbors rebuilding the wall between their farms. Their task, Frost mused, must have been be “a kind of outdoor game” because the wall was unneeded:

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

Do they?

My passport bears stamps from 38 countries. I have paced the medieval walls of Conway in Wales, built by Britain’s invading King Edward to cow the Welsh. I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall—what’s left of it—built by Romans to keep the Scots at bay.

Walls of Troy as restored by Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t seen the Great Wall of China, erected to protect the Chinese Empire from invading northern tribes. Nor have I seen the Walls of Troy. Those

beautiful blue-tiled walls, depicting dragons and aurochs, were restored (none too accurately) by Saddam Hussein. I missed both of those walls because they were located in places that didn’t feel safe or friendly when I wanted to go.

Historically, great walls have seen mixed success. A wall has kept North and South Korea separated for 60 years. But the Maginot Line didn’t work. And while the Great Wall of China has stood for 2,300 years, it didn’t keep the Manchu invaders out.

Most famous walls were contentious constructions, built to keep someone out.

The Berlin Wall, by contrast, was built to keep someone in. During its 28 year span, about 5,000 East Germans tried to escape over, under and around it. One man careened a sports car through even before the Berlin Wall was finished. Refugees got under the Wall by tunneling or by slithering through a pre-existing sewer system. They escaped by diverting trains and stealing tanks. Thomas Krüger purloined a light plane from an East German youth military training organization and flew it to a British Royal Air Force base. The RAF later trucked the disassembled plane back, emblazoned with humorous slogans like “Wish you were here” and “Come back soon!”

Destruction of the Berlin Wall.

The last person killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall was Winfried Freudenberg, whose homemade natural gas balloon crashed in March 1989. If only he had waited! East Berlin opened the border eight months later, and the Wall’s official demolition began the next summer.

All tolled, the solid Berlin Wall claimed 136 lives—only .01 percent of the nearly 11,000 who have died crossing this country’s porous boundary with Mexico.

The 1,989-mile US-Mexico border is defined by a series of short walls that lie within a “virtual fence” scanned by sensors and cameras. In January, our President called for hiring 5,000 more officers to beef up the force that monitors the current wall. None of those new hires are on the job yet, but last week, John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, announced a 40-percent drop in illegal border crossings. That drop occurred during January, a month when crossings usually increase. (Winter is the safest time to cross the scorching and slaughterous Sonoran desert.)

I think people are avoiding our border for the same reasons I stayed away from Saddam Hussein’s wall: Fear. Reproof. Maybe that’s why legal visitors are staying away. The Global Business Travel Association has estimated that since the election, the US travel industry has lost $185 million due to a “Trump slump”.

If the new wall’s job is to bar “illegals”, it won’t work any better than the Berlin Wall worked with Thomas Krüger. That’s because around 40 percent of illegal visitors simply fly in and overstay their visas.

While the president’s talk is cheap, his wall isn’t. An internal Department of Homeland Security report estimates its cost as high as $21.6 billion.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

 I’m hoping that the “something” isn’t just me. Or the endangered Mexico gray wolf, or the last jaguar, or the 111 other species compromised by the wall. Or the Tohono O’odham, Native Americans who refuse to have 75 miles of wall cutting through their families and sacred sites. Or the Texas landowners who are furious about being cut off from their own farm and ranchland.

I’m hoping that the “something” is also the GOP, which just might hate billion-dollar bloated budgets even more than foreigners?

I’m hoping. Because the way I see it, we humans have usually been safer mending fences than building them.

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