Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Letter 2006

Dear Family and Friends,

Every time I sit down to write our annual Christmas letter, I reflect on life's changes. A year ago at this time, the business I had started in Grand Junction, Colorado was shutting down and I was looking for a real job, Nan was working at Aspen Valley Hospital and coming home to the house we had bought in GJ on weekends, and we were both wondering what to do next. Job opportunities in GJ were few and paid poorly, but as luck would have it, after posting my résumé on, I received an email message that my old job at AVH was available again. It had been almost two years since I was laid off and I wasn't sure if I should apply, but Nan insisted. They hired me back without even an interview, not as Network Administrator but rather in the newly created position of Database/Internet Administrator. I started in late February, leaving behind my interim employment as a ski instructor at Powderhorn Resort, a great little ski mountain just outside of GJ. My half of the photo shows me in uniform but free skiing on Powderhorn's best powder day of the season, March 12, after it snowed four feet in two days.

Nan and I agreed that it didn't make sense to move back into our Aspen house, which was being rented at the time. The move to GJ had been an ordeal and we weren't eager to repeat the experience. And besides, we had grown fond of our living situation in GJ--the friendly climate, the good shopping and restaurants, the beauty of the high desert. We just couldn't afford both mortgages. So we found a house to rent downvalley and put the Aspen house up for sale in May as the lease ran out. We thought we could save on commissions by trying to sell it on our own, but the negotiating process was too draining, so we listed it with an old friend who had a firm offer in less than a week. We closed at the end of August. Now I guess we're former Aspenites even though we both still work there and live, during the work week anyway, just down the road.

These transitions didn't leave us much opportunity for travel this year. We carried through on reservations we had made almost a year in advance to spend a June week in Las Vegas, originally to attend the annual eBay convention, but my struggling business had eliminated any enthusiasm for that pursuit. Instead we walked all over the Strip, read novels by the pool at the Paris hotel, gambled a little and saw two great Cirque du Soleil shows, the Beatles' "Love" show and "O".

Nan and I both made it home to Wisconsin on separate trips for family time. My sister Susan organized a small family reunion that brought the Chicago contingent to Milwaukee for a day of food, fun, reminiscence and music. The rest of the week was a blur of spotty golf, a concert with sister Jane in Chicago and a visit to the Wisconsin State Fair. Nan's visit home brought together almost all of her eleven siblings. In between visiting around the dinner table at 846, Nan attended the Fall Festival at Camp Sinawa, where her father was so involved, and made day trips to see sister Sarah's family in Green Bay and old friends in Door County.

Most of our weekends were spent in GJ working on our new house, but we also managed a few weekends elsewhere, like in Moab, Utah a few weeks ago, where Nan ran in the Winter Sun 10K. As you can see in her half of the photo, Santa was there to record her finish time, which was good enough for third place in her age group.

We'll be making up for the lack of travel in a big way next year, including a repeat of our 2004 sailing adventure in the British Virgin Islands, this time on a bigger boat with Nan's sister Monica and friend Vicky as crew. Hopefully, it will go more smoothly than our ill-fated "Where's the dinghy?" experience.

Things definitely appear to be looking up, not just for us but also for our country. The November election proved that most people, at least the ones who vote, are paying attention and want a return to peace and sanity. We're hoping the momentum carries through to 2008, when we expect to see the election of our first African-American president. Go Barack!

Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season!

Love, John and Nan

Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Descending Spiral

About fifteen years ago on a weekend evening, I was having a drink at the Mother Lode bar in Aspen and talking with an acquaintance who also happened to be sitting there. The conversation had moved in the direction of what people do to eke out an existence in Aspen, which is undoubtedly the most expensive place to live in the United States. For example, I was probably drinking an Absolut on the rocks at that moment, at a per drink cost of about $5.00--and remember that this was fifteen years ago. Tim Cooney, my drinking buddy, was a good example of what it took to survive: he was a ski patrolman on Aspen Mountain during the ski season and a freelance writer the rest of the time. And he lived in a funky adobe house at the top of Original Street, which helped to keep expenses down.

Anyway, it must have been around election time because we were both marveling at one of the local candidates for public office. This guy had moved to town about three years before and landed a job as a dishwasher at one of Aspen's many restaurants. In his spare time, he went through the real estate classes at Colorado Mountain College, our local community college, and became a real estate broker. Now he was running for city council or something. Such ambition was a rarity, we both agreed. Aspen has a reputation as a "meat grinder," a place that chews people up and spits them out at a furious rate. It was much more common to see people fail--sometimes spectacularly, with accompanying articles in the daily newspapers--than it was to see them succeed. For what it's worth, this striver went on to lose his election. Badly.

Now we're talking about the real estate profession and I remark that a friend of mine used to say, "Every yutz with ears has a real estate license." Tim agrees, saying, "Yeah, there are way too many 'dirt pimps' in town." And we start to wonder why that is, other than the obvious lure of ridiculously high commissions on overpriced properties. I propose that real estate is what people do in Aspen when the thing they came here to do originally doesn't work out. Tim embellishes the idea, saying that selling real estate is just another step down on the descending spiral. Ahead of what, I ask. With very little effort, we reach a consensus: ahead of the military, prison and death.

So when Sen. Kerry botched his political joke this week, the one where he wanted Bush's decision to invade Iraq to be the butt of what happens if you aren't smart enough to study hard and do well in school, and instead it came out that ending up serving with the military in Iraq is what happens if you screw up in school, I had to cringe. It's one of those things that everyone knows is true but that nobody ever says out loud. The righteous indignation from Bush and the Republicans was to be expected since they exhibit righteous indignation over everything, including Michael J. Fox's display of Parkinson's Disease symptoms in his political ads for candidates who support stem cell research.

If you had asked anybody from my high school graduation class of 1976 if they planned to pursue a career in the military, they would have laughed at you. Vietnam had just ended, and most of us were just happy to have survived the possibility of being drafted. The only guys who ended up in the military were the guys who didn't have any better options or those whose families had a tradition of military service. My brother Stuart bounced around a few different career paths before ending up in the US Navy in his mid-thirties, hoping to get the training necessary to enter into the intelligence field. Here's a guy with a master's degree who is also a world-class athlete in cross-country ski racing. You'd think the military would put him in officers school. Instead they put him through boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Academy with guys half his age. Now, twelve years later, he's with the Air Force Reserve and still largely underutilized and underappreciated. Stuart says most of the young men he has met in the military are "dead-enders," guys with nothing going for them who believe that going out in a blaze of glory in Iraq would at least give meaning to their lives and make their families proud.

I think it's tragic that a segment of our nation's young people believe death in Iraq is their best option. If that's not a step down on the descending spiral from what you or I would consider everyday life, then I don't know what is.

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Ever so much more so

Two years ago, during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, Garrison Keillor wrote a commentary on the then-current state of the Republican Party. His line about hypocrisies shining like cat turds in the moonlight has stuck with me since I first read it and seems all the more apt during this election season, when the biggest hypocrite in recent memory, ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Florida), may have unwittingly thrown Congress over to the Democrats.

If it rang true then, it rings ever so much more so now:

Published on Friday, August 27, 2004 by In These Times

We’re Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore

How did the Party of Lincoln and Liberty transmogrify into the Party of Newt Gingrich’s Evil Spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch President, a Dull and Rigid Man, whose Philosophy is a Jumble of badly sutured Body Parts trying to Walk?

by Garrison Keillor

Something has gone seriously haywire with the Republican Party. Once, it was the party of pragmatic Main Street businessmen in steel-rimmed spectacles who decried profligacy and waste, were devoted to their communities and supported the sort of prosperity that raises all ships. They were good-hearted people who vanquished the gnarlier elements of their party, the paranoid Roosevelt-haters, the flat Earthers and Prohibitionists, the antipapist antiforeigner element. The genial Eisenhower was their man, a genuine American hero of D-Day, who made it OK for reasonable people to vote Republican. He brought the Korean War to a stalemate, produced the Interstate Highway System, declined to rescue the French colonial army in Vietnam, and gave us a period of peace and prosperity, in which (oddly) American arts and letters flourished and higher education burgeoned—and there was a degree of plain decency in the country. Fifties Republicans were giants compared to today’s. Richard Nixon was the last Republican leader to feel a Christian obligation toward the poor.

In the years between Nixon and Newt Gingrich, the party migrated southward down the Twisting Trail of Rhetoric and sneered at the idea of public service and became the Scourge of Liberalism, the Great Crusade Against the Sixties, the Death Star of Government, a gang of pirates that diverted and fascinated the media by their sheer chutzpah, such as the misty-eyed flag-waving of Ronald Reagan who, while George McGovern flew bombers in World War II, took a pass and made training films in Long Beach. The Nixon moderate vanished like the passenger pigeon, purged by a legion of angry white men who rose to power on pure punk politics. “Bipartisanship is another term of date rape,” says Grover Norquist, the Sid Vicious of the GOP. “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The boy has Oedipal problems and government is his daddy.

The party of Lincoln and Liberty was transmogrified into the party of hairy-backed swamp developers and corporate shills, faith-based economists, fundamentalist bullies with Bibles, Christians of convenience, freelance racists, misanthropic frat boys, shrieking midgets of AM radio, tax cheats, nihilists in golf pants, brownshirts in pinstripes, sweatshop tycoons, hacks, fakirs, aggressive dorks, Lamborghini libertarians, people who believe Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk was filmed in Roswell, New Mexico, little honkers out to diminish the rest of us, Newt’s evil spawn and their Etch-A-Sketch president, a dull and rigid man suspicious of the free flow of information and of secular institutions, whose philosophy is a jumble of badly sutured body parts trying to walk. Republicans: The No.1 reason the rest of the world thinks we’re deaf, dumb and dangerous.

Rich ironies abound! Lies pop up like toadstools in the forest! Wild swine crowd round the public trough! Outrageous gerrymandering! Pocket lining on a massive scale! Paid lobbyists sit in committee rooms and write legislation to alleviate the suffering of billionaires! Hypocrisies shine like cat turds in the moonlight! O Mark Twain, where art thou at this hour? Arise and behold the Gilded Age reincarnated gaudier than ever, upholding great wealth as the sure sign of Divine Grace.

Here in 2004, George W. Bush is running for reelection on a platform of tragedy—the single greatest failure of national defense in our history, the attacks of 9/11 in which 19 men with box cutters put this nation into a tailspin, a failure the details of which the White House fought to keep secret even as it ran the country into hock up to the hubcaps, thanks to generous tax cuts for the well-fixed, hoping to lead us into a box canyon of debt that will render government impotent, even as we engage in a war against a small country that was undertaken for the president’s personal satisfaction but sold to the American public on the basis of brazen misinformation, a war whose purpose is to distract us from an enormous transfer of wealth taking place in this country, flowing upward, and the deception is working beautifully.

The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this. The election of 2004 will say something about what happens to ours. The omens are not good.

Our beloved land has been fogged with fear—fear, the greatest political strategy ever. An ominous silence, distant sirens, a drumbeat of whispered warnings and alarms to keep the public uneasy and silence the opposition. And in a time of vague fear, you can appoint bullet-brained judges, strip the bark off the Constitution, eviscerate federal regulatory agencies, bring public education to a standstill, stupefy the press, lavish gorgeous tax breaks on the rich.

There is a stink drifting through this election year. It isn’t the Florida recount or the Supreme Court decision. No, it’s 9/11 that we keep coming back to. It wasn’t the “end of innocence,” or a turning point in our history, or a cosmic occurrence, it was an event, a lapse of security. And patriotism shouldn’t prevent people from asking hard questions of the man who was purportedly in charge of national security at the time.

Whenever I think of those New Yorkers hurrying along Park Place or getting off the No.1 Broadway local, hustling toward their office on the 90th floor, the morning paper under their arms, I think of that non-reader George W. Bush and how he hopes to exploit those people with a little economic uptick, maybe the capture of Osama, cruise to victory in November and proceed to get some serious nation-changing done in his second term.

This year, as in the past, Republicans will portray us Democrats as embittered academics, desiccated Unitarians, whacked-out hippies and communards, people who talk to telephone poles, the party of the Deadheads. They will wave enormous flags and wow over and over the footage of firemen in the wreckage of the World Trade Center and bodies being carried out and they will lie about their economic policies with astonishing enthusiasm.

The Union is what needs defending this year. Government of Enron and by Halliburton and for the Southern Baptists is not the same as what Lincoln spoke of. This gang of Pithecanthropus Republicanii has humbugged us to death on terrorism and tax cuts for the comfy and school prayer and flag burning and claimed the right to know what books we read and to dump their sewage upstream from the town and clear-cut the forests and gut the IRS and mark up the constitution on behalf of intolerance and promote the corporate takeover of the public airwaves and to hell with anybody who opposes them.

This is a great country, and it wasn’t made so by angry people. We have a sacred duty to bequeath it to our grandchildren in better shape than however we found it. We have a long way to go and we’re not getting any younger.

Dante said that the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral, so I have spoken my piece, and thank you, dear reader. It’s a beautiful world, rain or shine, and there is more to life than winning.


Saturday, October 7, 2006

Election Season in Colorado

Given the current state of world politics, it is no surprise that this election season is one of the nastiest ever. Here in Colorado the governor's race and the House races have been especially dirty. The locally produced television ads are bad enough, but the tactics employed by the 527 groups are so over the top and deceitful they almost make me laugh.

One 527 ad portrays the Democratic candidate for governor, Bill Ritter, as having plea bargained an astonishing 97% of his cases as a state prosecutor, many involving illegal aliens. This is just 2% higher than the national average of 95%, and plea bargains by prosecutors are for guilty pleas, so what's the fuss? If he is successfully putting guilty parties behind bars, including illegal aliens, isn't that what he was hired to do? The ad makes it seem like these criminals are getting off easy and that the illegal aliens are being deported. Not so!

This ad is nothing compared to the ads directed by Marilyn Musgrave, the Republican incumbent from the 4th Congressional district, against her Democratic challenger, Angie Paccione. Each of Musgrave's ads begins with a clip of her saying, "I'm Marilyn Musgrave and I approved this ad," followed by a horrific personal attack. In one Paccione is accused of voting to approve college tuition breaks for illegal aliens ("Angie Paccione is on the wrong side of the border!"). In another, she is accused of being a deadbeat who has had financial difficulty as recently as two years ago ("Is this the kind of person we want representing Colorado?").

I find it unbearably grating when the first ads I see for a political candidate are negative. Instead of saying what they will do for us if elected or explaining their stands on crucial issues, they attack their competitors, trying to convince us that they are the lesser of two evils. If that's the best they have to offer, what's the point? It makes me want to vote for the other guy, just out of spite!

Nothing is more satisfying than to see these tactics backfire. Recent polls show the Musgrave-Paccione race to be a virtual tie, surprising when you consider that Musgrave's district north of Denver is predominantly right-wing conservative. But when you publicly make such unbelievably wrong-headed statements as, "Gay marriage is the most important issue that we face today," you deserve to go down in defeat.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Life without Television

Click this thumbnail for a full-size version of "Flowers for Trinitron"
For the past two months, Nan and I have been without TV. The neighbors next door to the house we are renting in Basalt had some excavation work done around their foundation back in June. In the process, our cable was cut, or more likely it was just disconnected since I finally traced the cable back to its end and there was still a muddy connector attached. It turns out it was not a legitimate hook-up, which meant there was no calling the cable company to get it reconnected. We stewed about this for quite a while, partly not wanting to pay for something we had been getting for free and partly out of fear that there would be repercussions if we called the cable company to order new service.

For the first couple of days, we would turn on the TV periodically to see if by some miracle the service was back on, but all we ever got was a blue screen. We didn't miss it in the mornings when we normally listen to NPR on the radio, but there was a definite void in the evenings. Fortunately, it was the summer rerun season, so we weren't missing much. Still it would have been nice to watch the news or a sports event or an HBO movie once in a while. Instead we would read both Aspen daily newspapers, follow sports on the Internet, and watch DVDs on my laptop. Nan spent more time emailing family and friends, and I spent more time practicing guitar. We went to bed earlier and felt better rested and more productive at work.

It occurred to me after a couple of weeks that we were living Ruben Bolling's "Flowers for Trinitron" existence, based on one of his old Tom the Dancing Bug cartoons. Hopefully, we won't see it through to its logical conclusion and return to our previous viewing habits, even though we recently gritted our teeth and ordered new cable service--without threat of arrest!--in time for football season. Go Packers!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Gore 2008: Save the Planet!

Last night Nan and I saw An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's documentary film about global warming. It was an eye-opener. I had been lukewarm to the idea of global warming for some time, especially since reading Michael Crichton's book, State of Fear, in which he presents scientific evidence in a fictional context to show that global warming is part of a natural cycle perhaps somewhat enhanced by human activity.

Al Gore blows the top off that idea in the first few minutes with his graphs showing the cycles of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the last fifty years. The growth is exponential. Then he goes on to show the potential future consequences of having this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is not a world we would want to live in: flooded coastlines, summer temperatures consistently over one hundred degrees, even more devastating hurricanes and cyclones, accelerated desertification, political unrest, and natural disasters claiming millions of lives.

The critics are saying that everyone should see this movie, and I agree. If you have an open mind, it will change the way you think about the earth and our future on it. The problem of global warming makes the war on terror seem inconsequential by comparison. Personally, I think Al Gore should run for president in 2008 on the platform of instituting the steps necessary to minimize the impacts of global warming. Anyone who has seen An Inconvenient Truth would have his vote.

Here is the text of a hand-out I picked up in the movie theater lobby:

Ten Things To Do

Want to do something to help stop global warming? Here are 10 simple things you can do and how much carbon dioxide you'll save doing them.

Change a light
Replacing one regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent light bulb will save 150 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Drive less
Walk, bike, carpool or take mass transit more often. You'll save one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile you don't drive!

Recycle more
You can save 2,400 pounds of carbon dioxide per year by recycling just half of your household waste.

Check your tires
Keeping your tires inflated properly can improve gas mileage by more than 3%. Every gallon of gasoline saved keeps 20 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere!

Use less hot water
It takes a lot of energy to heat water. Use less hot water by installing a low flow showerhead (350 pounds of CO2 saved per year) and washing your clothes in cold or warm water (500 pounds saved per year).

Avoid products with a lot of packaging
You can save 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide if you cut down your garbage by 10%.

Adjust your thermostat
Moving your thermostat down just 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer could save about 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.

Plant a tree
A single tree will absorb one ton of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.

Be a part of the solution
Learn more and get active at

Spread the word! Encourage your friends to see An Inconvenient Truth

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

How much is enough?

I work at Aspen Valley Hospital, where Ken Lay was pronounced dead earlier today. The media, which were already in town to cover the Aspen Ideas Festival, descended on the hospital in force. Wolf Blitzer from CNN was seen in the lobby. TV-station vans and cameras surrounded the building.

At one point early in the day, my duties took me past the morgue. I stopped and stared at the door, wondering if he was still in there, but I didn't dare check to see if it was locked. Instead I thought of the man behind the door and what his life must have been like.

At the peak of his career, Ken Lay was a very wealthy man. It was common knowledge that he owned four multi-million dollar houses in Aspen. This boggles my mind. Any one of the houses was big enough to put up the extended Lay family and several guests. So what were the other three for? To house staff? If so, the man was living large, extremely large. And I think that is what got him into the financial mess he ended up in, the one which ultimately contributed to his early death. When you're living the way he did, the money has got to flow at a tremendous rate just to maintain equilibrium. If that balance is upset and the money suddenly stops, what do you do? If you're Ken Lay, you don't scale back; you figure out ways, many of them fraudulent and illegal, to keep it all going until the inevitable crash.

What may have started out as simple greed grew over the years into something that was well beyond Ken Lay's control. I believe this is a common occurrence in modern society, where the gulf between the wealthy and the poor is every-widening. If you reach a point in your life where you have so much stuff and such a complicated life that you need to hire full-time staff to maintain it and organize it for you, then you are living too large. It is time to step back, realize how lucky you are, and start simplifying your life before it consumes you. It's too late for Ken Lay. May his life and death be a lesson to others.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Latitudes & Attitudes

I have read various sailing magazines, like Cruising World and Sail, over the years, but I never subscribed to one until I discovered Latitudes & Attitudes. The other mags were a little hoity-toity, with their emphasis on super-expensive racing yachts and the promotion of an ultra-rich lifestyle I knew I would never be a part of. But Lats & Atts is the sailing magazine for the rest of us, the people who dream of cashing in our workaday lives for a used, fixer-upper sailboat and adventure on the high seas.

It has been a few years, but I think I was surfing the Internet when I found the Latitudes & Attitudes website (, which offers a free trial issue right on the front page. The rest of the website contained just the kind of sailing information I was looking for, so I requested my free trial issue. I read it from cover to cover, gleaning useful sailing tips and smiling at the mishap stories. I became an immediate fan of the regular columnists, Bob Bitchin, who is also the publisher, Tania Aebi, who is the first American woman to sail around the world alone (at age seventeen!), and Captain Woody, who I relate to most closely, a guy who just wants to be out there sailing as much as possible.

Most of the other articles in Latitudes & Attitudes are submitted by readers just like me. So after Nan's and my ill-fated sailing adventure in the British Virgin Islands two years ago, I thought I would write an article and submit it with some pictures to see if I could get it published. The result was "Where's the Dinghy?", which I serialized here in the Whispering Jesse weblog (2005-04-01 whisperingjesse archive, scroll to the bottom of the page). I sent it off to Lats & Atts on a CD-ROM last August and waited for their reply.

A month went by with no response, so I sent an email inquiry. Editor Sue emailed back that she hadn't had time to read it yet because she was under deadline for their biggest issue of the year. A few days later, Editor Sue emailed me again that she had read my article and enjoyed it but that it was too long and the pictures were too small and too low-resolution. She invited me to trim it down to 1500-2000 words, redo the pictures and resubmit it for possible publication. She finished her message with, "We do appreciate the time you've taken and hope to hear from you again."

I was encouraged, so I started editing the article with the idea of making it more concise, but it's difficult to condense more than 7000 words down to just 2000 without some drastic cuts. I tried to tighten up some of the narrative and managed to get it down to about 6000 words, way short of the goal. My sister Jane is a freelance editor, so I emailed her a copy and let her work her magic with it. It came back heavily marked up, which was a bit of a blow to my writing ego, but when I talked with her about it, she said her goal was not to criticize my writing but rather to make the article shorter. She had marked whole paragraphs as probably not necessary, so I used that idea to eliminate complete sections, like the crazy night at the Bomba Shack and the explanation of how we freed ourselves from a tangled anchor line. It's now just under 4000 words and I'm afraid it would become almost a Cliff Notes version of the original if I kept hacking away at it, so I think I'm going to let it go for now.

Nan and I are planning another sailing trip for next May, to the BVI again with maybe a side trip to Anegada. If we have a "less complicated" adventure than last time, maybe I could write an article that captures everything in 1500-2000 words right from the outset and see if Latitudes & Attitudes would publish it. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Nature of What's Funny

Two weeks ago, Stephen Colbert roasted George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. (Click here to see the video on Google Video.) In the guise of his Comedy Central "Colbert Report" character, he took sharply critical potshots at Bush, the press and just about everything else. The thing that made it so outrageous was that Bush was sitting just a few feet away with his wife Laura watching the whole thing, at first with an expression of mild amusement and later in a condition of frozen-faced discomfort.

Since it first aired live on C-SPAN, the video has been watched by thousands on the Internet, myself included. I have read many of the articles and blog entries that followed, and I have some observations:

The first is that I can't believe this hasn't been more widely publicized. It's as though the embarrassment felt by the press at some of Colbert's remarks caused them to ignore this obviously newsworthy event, remarks such as: "Write that novel you got kicking around in your head, you know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know, fiction!"

The second is that many of the more conservative blogs have criticized Colbert's roasting of Bush as "not funny." Huh? I thought it was hysterical, mostly because it was so surprising and harsh. The nature of what's funny is always relative. If Colbert's remarks cut a little too close to the bone for some, then I understand why they would think it wasn't funny. But that doesn't lessen the impact or automatically dismiss those who applaud Colbert for having the guts to make light of what many consider a seriously flawed administration and the fawning press that covers it.

One of my favorite jokes goes, "How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?" The stock punchline is "That's not funny." Once when I told it in mixed company, a woman didn't wait for the punchline before saying, "I'm offended by that." I burst out laughing because that's an even better punchline than the original. The point is that people need to get over themselves, to stop taking everything so seriously that they can't find the humor in everyday life. It's like Dennis Miller once said on his Friday night HBO show several years back, before he went over to the conservative side: "You can't tell me that when the tall magi smacked his forehead on the cross-beam while entering the manger that Joseph didn't take his mind off wondering who had impregnated his wife for just a second and laugh his little carpenter's ass off."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Old Dog, New Tricks

Best powder day of the season,
Sunday, March 12
When Nan and I first moved to Aspen almost twenty years ago, her first job was working at a hotel at the base of Buttermilk Mountain. After finishing work at my computer job in town, I would wait at the hotel's bar for Nan to get off work. Most of the bar crowd at that time of day was the après-ski crowd, winding down from a day on the slopes. One afternoon, as I was nursing a beer, a young lady on the other side of the U-shaped bar yelled across to me, "Hey, this guy says ski instructors are the best skiers. Is that true?" I immediately determined that the guy in question was wearing a ski instructor's uniform and that he was using the line in an attempt to pick up the young lady. Without thinking, I shot back, "Yeah, they're the strongest intermediates out there!"

As a long-time skier, my attitude has always been that ski instructors make pretty turns on groomed runs but can't ski the tough stuff. All that changed for me this ski season when I became a ski instructor myself. The business I had moved to Grand Junction to open last January never really took off, so by October I was looking for something else to do. I was also thinking ahead to the ski season and wondering if nearby Powderhorn Resort would fill the bill for me after twenty years of skiing in Aspen. I checked for a trail map and ski pass rates, and noticed that the ski school was hiring. I thought, why not give it a try? It couldn't possibly be as competitive as Aspen, so I was pretty sure they would take me. And Nan said it was fine with her, so I applied.

I had no idea how the training would be structured. I thought I could just go in and say something like, "I've been skiing for thirty-seven years and I'd like to teach skiers who are looking for a breakthrough in skiing moguls, steeps or powder." I quickly found out that this is not how it works. Everyone starts at the bottom, teaching "never evers," people who have never ever skied before. If I stuck it out, I might be teaching breakthroughs in about three years!

We new applicants spent an evening session finding out what it's all about and then an all-day session learning about the movements involved in skiing, people's learning styles, and the progression that turns them into safe, competent skiers. All this took place before we ever hit the snow. On Saturday, December 10, when Powderhorn opened for the season, all the prospective ski and snowboard instructors were out there trying to impress the trainers with their ability. Most survived to ski or ride again on Sunday. Everyone who survived to the end of that second day on snow was accepted into the school--only about fifteen of us. Actual teaching began the very next day. As someone who had agreed to teach full-time, I was scheduled to teach the next seven days in a row.

Needless to say, this rookie instructor quickly gained experience in getting people, mostly kids, to progress from having trouble keeping their balance to riding a chairlift and skiing safely and in control down an easy ski slope, sometimes in as little as two hours. When it went poorly, it was frustrating, but when it went well, it was deeply rewarding. For example, I was waiting with a class of ten-year-olds in the lift line one day when I spontaneously yelled out, "Are you guys having fun?" They responded in unison with an enthusiastic "Yeah!!" It made me smile for the rest of the day.

While all this teaching was happening, I was noticing that some of the veteran instructors were extremely good skiers, much better than I would have expected given my past close-minded perspective. They were not only great skiers, they were also great instructors and they taught seminars to other instructors most mornings. A frequent topic was what I would call "new school" skiing, a concept I had been resistant to since the introduction of shaped skis almost ten years ago. My five-year-old, "lightly shaped" 191-centimeter skis were not going to cut it, so I bought some new 169-centimeter "R16s." What a difference! Instead of letting my edges skid slightly through short-radius turns, I could now stand on my edges and feel them carve all the way through a turn. Instead of my inside ski just being along for the ride, it was now an active component of the turn, tracking its own edge. With fine-tuning during the early-morning seminars, I felt my skiing move to a whole new level, way beyond where it had been stuck for the last ten or so years. And boy was it fun!

By the time the ski season ended on March 26, I had skied close to seventy days and taught at least as many lessons. I had also taken and passed my PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) Level 1 certification exam, which entitled me to proudly wear the badge of a professional ski instructor on my uniform jacket. Was it worth it? Yes! Will I be back again next year? You bet! Did I learn anything? More than I ever would have believed.