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.