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

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.

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