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.

Of Painting, Pikas and Politics – The Personal is Political

Right now, I’m pursuing two long-deferred callings: writing a personal column and becoming a fine-art painter.

Those two activities feel like yin and yang, emotionally balancing the scales: painting is a right-brain activity, writing is left-brain. When I’m writing, my mind is full of words. I never miss a publication deadline. While I’m painting, mind chatter disappears. I lose track of time. I sometimes even miss meals.

I started writing a column – this one – because all through my journalistic career, my first-person pieces have always seemed to resonate most with readers. I will soon stop editing a regional magazine not just because the writing I do there is less personal, but also because the editor’s role has kept me, in indirect ways, from expressing a political opinion. While this column isn’t intended to be political per se, recent events call to mind a phrase I remember from the seventies: “The personal is political.”

 Until recently, I thought that my painting was not political. I don’t make political posters like Shepard Fairey, nor satirical graffiti like Banksy. My paintings celebrate light and color, the natural world. I like to paint mountain landscapes and Colorado wildlife. When I resumed painting seriously last fall, I first painted a bighorn sheep, then a mountain lion. Then a pika.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the pika. It’s a small round-eared relative of the rabbit. Pikas live in boulder fields above timberline, grazing on grasses and flowers, signaling one another with high-pitched whistles.

Because this cute, baked-potato-sized creature can be cooked by temperatures above 78 degrees, it’s considered an “indicator species” for global warming. The pika is desperately seeking higher ground. We still have pikas in Colorado, but in many western states, they have topped out of livable habit. They may be the first species that North America loses to climate change.

After learning that, it began to dawn on me that all of the mountain animals I was painting are threatened. Every life zone in the Rockies is warming, and the range of all our plants and animals is changing. That’s why scientists project that Aspen may become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030.

Considering all this, I began to think my paintings as an “elegy for the anthropocene.” That name has been coined to describe the current geological age, a time period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment. I decided that when I exhibited the paintings as an ensemble, I would include a brief artist’s statement explaining that title.

It wasn’t until I began looking at an application for an artist’s residency in Glacier National Park that I realized that my paintings, are—or have become—unintentionally, but inescapably, political!

Glacier offers artists a chance to spend a month living and painting in the park. They’re expected to share their work by giving talks or demonstrations to visitors, and their art must support Glacier’s educational, environmental and cultural goals. Sounds benign…

But as I was pondering Glacier’s application, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, was being vetted to head the EPA. The new president was muzzling science-based government agencies, ranging from the EPA to the NOAA and the Forest Service. Republicans were also vowing to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (That’s a political rather than a fiscal goal, since the combined budgets of the two agencies equal less than .001 percent of the nation’s annual spending.)

It’s hard to even talk about Glacier National Park without acknowledging global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, but only 25 larger than 25 acres remained by 2010. By 2030, the place may be known as Glacier-free National Park! I began to wonder whether painting Glacier’s scenery—let alone explaining the term “Elegy for the Anthropocene”—might be construed as political resistance.

My artistic goals this year are modest: to sell enough to pay for my materials and to become known as artist. The residency at Glacier would have helped me become more widely known; the work produced by resident artists is used in the park’s public outreach.

But in the end, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want to be away from home for a full month, so I decided to save this adventure for summer 2018.

I think the glaciers will withstand the planet’s climate that long. I’m wondering how well Glacier’s residency will hold up given the nation’s political climate.

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

The New Deep Throat is a Park Ranger?

During the election, as “fake news” (i.e. propaganda) flew from both the left and the right, I had several conversations with other local journalists about where they get their news and made some personal adjustments and resolutions.

With local news, it’s easier to nail down. I know most of the Roaring Fork Valley’s reporters and editors personally. I can corner them between the potatoes and the artichokes in the grocery and ask, “Why in heck did you write that?”

I have spent most of my career writing about travel, the outdoors and other supposedly nonpolitical topics. I graduated from the CU Boulder School of Journalism with honors, then worked as a feature writer, a nonprofit publicist and an ad agency copywriter. (The latter involves being paid a princely sum to crow about something readers may or not want to buy.)

But even as a copywriter, I drew the line at lying. I think Thomas Jefferson was right in asserting that a free press was (and is) essential to democracy. Writing to a delegate of the Continental Congress, Jefferson famously opined that if he had to choose between “a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government”, he would not hesitate to prefer the latter.

Sadly, much has changed since my J-school days, a time when Woodward and Bernstein were heralded as heroes. Last September, a Gallup poll found that only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. Among Republicans, that number drops to 14 percent, down from 32 percent last year.

Still, I suspect that our new president will soon learn why Mark Twain quipped that it’s poor idea to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.

In an open letter to Trump published in the Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the journalistic profession, CJR editor Kyle Pope warned,

“We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that…You and your staff sit in the White House, but the American government is a sprawling thing. We will fan reporters out across the government, embed them in your agencies, source up those bureaucrats.” As the White House’s webpage on climate change disappeared and the new administration barred the EPA from sharing information with the press and public, I began to wonder how many Deep Throats would appear in the coming months.

It took days, not months, to get an answer. Following White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertions about inaugural crowd, the press began digging and the National Park Service (NPS) tweeted out side-by-side photos of crowds at Trump’s and Obama’s inaugurations. That quickly led to the silencing of the Park Service’s official Twitter account.

 The NPS account came back some hours later, but dragon’s teeth had been sown. Badlands National Park quickly began tweeting about climate change — and soon found its Tweets deleted.

But by the end of that day, more than 50 “alt” or “rogue” Twitter accounts appeared, speaking for government agencies that deal with environment, science, health and food safety. They can be found under the hashtag #twistance (Twitter resistance).

 I’m now following “Rogue NOAA”, an unofficial National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration account that promises “research on our climate, oceans, and marine resources should be subject to peer [not political] review.” NOAA operates 17 environmental satellites and myriad land- and ocean-monitoring instruments that collect data used for everything from farming to weather forecasting to insurance.

Because I’m sure that the climate is warming, I’m also following “EPA Ungagged” for “news, links, tips, and conversation that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unable to tell you.” And I’m wickedly cheering on the bad hombres at AltBadlandsNatPark, who tweeted that “the current pace of global average temp rise puts approximately 25 to 35 percent of plant and animal species at increased risk of extinction.”

I followed the Twitter resisters because like “Alt USDA”, I’m “resisting the censorship of facts and science.”  I too believe that “truth wins in the end.”
But these days, the truth is an endangered species. It’s no coincidence that I get news about Standing Rock from the reports of former Sopris Sun editor Terray Sylvester. Or that I have donated to our local media news outlets. Or that I have subscribed to the New York Times.

Or that I’m launching a new career as a columnist.
You’re welcome to corner me by the artichokes and ask me all about it.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 2, 2017.