The Future of the Forest Ski Resort Dog and Pony Show Plays Political CircuitBy Stacy Malkan Jan. 2000 The stakes continue to rise as the U.S. Forest Service solicits public comment on the future of Colorado's busiest, best-known national forest. Now some experts are even predicting that what happens here - on the 2.3 million-acre White River National Forest - could determine the fate of all of America's heavily-used national forests. Will people agree to give up some access to the forest in order to protect the ecosystem? Or will human desires and business interests take precedence? Whether or not the Forest Service is able to limit human use of the forest in favor of environmental concerns - a controversial idea the agency has presented as its preferred management plan, called Alternative D - will depend largely on the comments of the public and their political representatives. And as politicians jockey for positions of influence, it has become nearly just as important for local citizens to lobby their representatives as to write opinions to the Forest Service itself. The Summit County Commissioners plan to write an opinion on the forest plan that "reflects a wide consensus in the county," according to community development director Steve Hill. The county's opinion will carry more weight with the Forest Service than what individuals have to say about the forest plan, according to Dillon District Ranger Jamie Connell. "The county's recommendation will be given close attention by the Forest Service," Connell said. The reason, she said, is the comprehensive process used by Summit County to gather opinion, a process that has involved public meetings in each basin of the county, many of which Connell herself has attended, and recommendations by each basin planning commission. Connell describes the county's approach as "the most organized, complex and ongoing process to comment" of any of the communities within the White River National Forest. The county's opinion will reflect "a consensus opinion," she said, though she admitted that it will be difficult to build a consensus on some of the contentious issues in the forest plan. "There are completely differing opinions on how the Forest Service should manage the forest," -- particularly when it comes to the ski area issue, she said. Indeed, as the ski industry and state Republicans lobby fiercely on behalf of ski area expansions, and as environmental groups lobby against them, it seems Summit County Government is attempting to build consensus in a battlefield. Executives, Environmentalists, and Skiers Ski resort executives have used every method available to them to cry foul about Alternative D's stance on ski area expansions. Alternative D recommends holding ski areas to their current permit boundaries -- which means Copper, Keystone, Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin could still expand beyond their existing slopes, but not as much as they want or in the exact areas they want. Anyone who has been to a public meeting about the forest plan is familiar with the routine: dozens of ski area employees stand up one by one and make impassioned pleas for the Forest Service to allow more land for ski area expansions. Ski areas, they say, need flexibility to keep up with demand and any unforeseen circumstances that could occur over the next 15 years. Keystone Resort has presented the county with a petition containing the signatures of more than 100 employees who are opposing Alternative D "because it limits recreation nd it's not a balanced approach to managing my national forest." The petition also recommends the Forest Service include Independence Mountain as an area prescribed for possible expansion. State Republicans Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Scott McInnis are adding to the chorus, lobbying noisily on the ski resorts' behalf. Executives from each ski resort have also met privately with the Forest Service. Although the meetings were meant to offer guidance about how to comment on the plan, and not to solicit comment, Connell admitted, "It's not like it disappears once we've heard it in our ears." The county commissioners also held a public worksession with ski resort executives (at the suggestion of countywide planning commissioner David Cunningham, who also works as a political consultant for Vail Resorts). At that meeting, the commissioners agreed with the ski resorts on the need for more expansion capabilities. But, over on the other side, there has been plenty of public comment in favor of holding the ski resorts to their existing permit boundaries. Though their members do not come out by the dozens at public meetings, the 100-plus-member Friends of the Eagle's Nest Wilderness and the 200-plus-member Summit Fat Tire Society - along with several regional environmental groups with membership in the thousands - are supporting the conservation theme of Alternative D and its recommendations for holding ski resorts to their existing permit boundaries. But many feel as though they are raging against a much-bigger machine, and they are upset with the tactics used by the ski resorts to exert influence. Currie Craven, president of Friends of the Eagle's Nest, went to nearly all the planning commission meetings on the forest plan, and he said ski area employees were in "mass attendance" at most of them. "I don't know if they're on the clock or if it's a lot of peer pressure that if you want to move up in Vail Resorts, you've got to oppose Alternative D," he said. In response to the ski resorts and other user groups, a coalition of six regional environmental groups, including Colorado Wild, the Aspen Wilderness Workshop and the Wilderness Society, has been lobbying politicians, the media and the Forest Service with what they say is intended to "counteract the great mis-information and rhetoric (that is) informing this debate." The groups, which have combined memberships of about 10,000 people statewide, disagree that there is enough demand to warrant more ski terrain, and charge that expansions are really about the ski resorts' desire to cash in on base-area developments. In letter to independent business owners, the coalition warns that the ski companies are trying to increase their share of non-lift-ticket revenue by competing with locally-owned businesses. The letter cites Vail Resorts' 1997 annual report, which states: "the Company captures only about 20% of the spending by the average visitor ... [Our] strategy to expand 'non-lift ticket' business was successful in 1997 ..." Jeff Berman, president of Colorado Wild, said the groups are also compiling maps that "will be damaging to Keystone's expansion desires." The maps show that there are old growth forest and wildlife issues on Independence Mountain and in Jones Gulch, Berman said. Berman thinks ski area employees are being pressured to lobby the Forest Service for more ski area expansions. "I know a number of (ski area) employees who don't want that to happen but they're afraid to speak out," he said. He also thinks the employees are misinformed. "All those 100 people (who signed the petition) I guarantee have not seen and have not heard the tedious research we've done about environmental issues on Independence Mountain," he said. "Once they see information that counters what the ski resorts are telling them, I wonder if they'll feel differently then." Even among skiers, there is little consensus on the expansion issue. Many of the ski area employees who are opposing Alternative D have said they are speaking out of personal concern, as skiers who want more ski terrain. But ironically, some hard-core skiers are among the most disturbed about A-Basin's and Keystone's desire to expand. "If Keystone expands onto Independence Mountain, I'm leaving the county," said long-time local skier Kathy Castrigno. Independence Mountain, along with the Beavers and Montezuma Bowl at Arapahoe Basin -- the two areas where A-Basin wants the potential to expand -- are some of the most popular spots in the county for backcountry skiing. If put under ski area control, these public lands would be closed to those who can't afford lift tickets, and depending on conditions, they could be closed to everyone at certain times. Nearby backcountry areas could be closed altogether. In Vail, for instance, in order to mitigate damages to the forest of the massive Category III expansion (now called Blue Sky Basin), the Forest Service closed backcountry access to several popular areas surrounding the expansion area. Did Your Planning Commissioners Vote Your Conscience? The division in public opinion about the ski area expansion issue is reflected in the conflicting stances taken by the basin planning commissions. The Snake River Planning Commission unanimously supported A-Basin's requests for more ski terrain, but was split 3-3 on whether to support Keystone in its desire to leave the door open for expansion onto Independence Mountain. "We were concerned about base area development should (Keystone) expand, and we weren't convinced the numbers show they will run out of ski terrain," said commissioner Barb Crandall, in explaining why she and two others voted against supporting Keystone. As for Arapahoe Basin, Crandall said, "A lot of the employees who came and spoke for A-Basin, they are really freaked out about losing their jobs," and they made a good case that A-Basin needs to add easier terrain to attract more mainstream skiers. "They were very passionate, a lot less corporate," Crandall said. She said that the Keystone employees, in contrast, were not the average employees -- people who work as lift ops, in food service or housekeeping -- but were "upper management people." Though some expressed concern over losing their jobs, Crandall doubted that would be the case. The Countywide Planning Commission, on the other hand, was unanimously in favor of leaving the door open for expansion into the areas proposed by the ski resorts. Their thinking, as commissioner David Cunningham put it, is to "let the ski areas fight their day in court through the EIS process," referring to the Environmental Impact Statement process that all ski resort expansions must go through for any expansion onto Forest Service land. But the Summit County Open Space Advisory Council is supporting Alternative D's recommendation that ski areas be held to their existing permit boundaries. Though it wasn't a unanimous decision, the majority of the 11 member council said ski area expansions are not consistent with the criteria for open space, and that expansions displace other dispersed recreational uses of public land. "Some of our members felt that some ski areas should have some flexibility, but others said (the ski areas are) already big enough to meet the existing demand and what we see as the foreseeable future demand," said council chair Robert Ray. The Tenmile Planning Commission, dealing only with Copper Mountain, agreed with Copper's suggestions to remove the environmentally sensitive Stafford/Guller area from their permit boundaries, and add Jacques Ridge and Tucker Creek. Planning commissioner Lane Wyatt explained, "I wasn't uncomfortable with where they wanted to go. It seemed reasonable." The Upper Blue Planning Commission was more vague in its opinion, suggesting that "any proposed ski area expansion should be coordinated with the town/county to ensure that the expansion would be consistent with the goals/policies with the Joint Upper Blue Master Plan." The commission also recommended that off-site impacts of ski area expansions be addressed. Recommendations Realistic? The final management plan for the White River National Forest -- which will be decided upon after the public comment period ends May 9 -- could involve any of the changes suggested by the planning commissions. It is possible the final plan could, for instance, add Jacques Ridge and delete Stafford Gulch as areas prescribed for skiing. "As long as somewhere in the plan, the areas we're talking about were evaluated by the Forest Service," they could be included as a skiing prescription, Connell said. And as the Upper Blue Planning Commission suggested, it is also possible that the Forest Service could improve upon its evaluation of off-site impacts of ski resort expansions. "We can look to see if we can do a better job of looking at off-site impacts and impacts to the community," Connell said. Connell also said that the ski areas have already made some concessions in what they want. "The ski areas are coming in with less than what they we originally thinking," she said. "They are looking at what they truly need rather than what might be a good idea." As for whether the final White River National Forest Plan will blaze the trail for national forests across the country, Connell said that remains to be seen. "It will depend on where we end up with the final plan, and if what we're doing is truly groundbreaking," she said. In other words, it will depend on whether the conservation theme of Alternative D is preserved. Connell said she personally doesn't think Alternative D "is way out there." "I think it's wonderful what we're doing," she said. "There seems to be quite a bit of support for Alternative D, if we change a few small things. It will be great if we can make these changes in a way that we can still retain the environmental protection in the plan. But that will remain to be seen." Craven also hopes to see the conservation theme of Alternative D prevail, and he hopes to see more environmentalists come out and say so. "We need other high-profile groups to come out. I think we need to pull out all the stops," he said.The Truth About Ganja And MeBy Jason O'Neill Jan. 2000 This is the third in a series of articles intended to help clarify negative propaganda surrounding the prohibition of Cannabis Sativa. I see the prohibition of Cannabis as four different issues that need to be addressed separately, both because of the importance of the specific issues and the negative stigma surrounding one particular issue. One industrial hemp, second medical marijuana, third recreational marijuana, and fourth our government's war against the other three. The recreational use of marijuana is the evil stepchild of the cannabis re-evaluation, beaten on by every politician, clergyman and Middle American as the reason pot in all its forms should be illegal. I find the lack of social acceptance of recreational use humorous. My parents are straight out of the sixties (the working-class sixties), and my father likes to tell how he was cleaning carpet during the riots in Detroit. He had no time for such diversions as music, travel or drugs; he was too busy working. Both my parents have experimented with cannabis and both have great concerns with my herbal excursions. My mother, who doesn't think twice about taking a couple of Excedrin PM to help her sleep, makes the comment every time I forget something: "I thought you stopped smoking that stuff." My father, who loves to stock my liquor cabinet with multiple bottles of whiskey, vodka and wine every time he visits, regardless of the fact that it would take me a decade to drink so much liquor, is afraid I'm losing my mind and wasting my time "smoking grass." The impression most Americans have of somebody who uses cannabis is of a total pothead sitting on the couch, bong in hand, empty pizza box on the floor, trying to find the remote control in the cushions. How can you blame them, it's the only exposure most have had to marijuana users? If Hollywood depicted everyone who drinks and smokes cigarettes as the factory worker sitting in the bar at 4 a.m. with a breakfast of cigarettes and whiskey just before his shift, rather than 007-shaken-not-stirred, America would have a much smaller smoking and drinking problem. It's all just a matter of perception. Caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are so socially acceptable it baffles me. Glamorized by movies, television and everyday Americans, these drugs are some of the worst we have. Tobacco alone kills 400,000 Americans every year! While alcohol has been proven to be one of the main contributors to violent crimes, when abused it has severely detrimental effects on one's life. Caffeine, perceived to be harmless and even given to children just off the bottle, has serious health consequences when abused. All of these drugs have been proven to be highly addictive. Cannabis on the other hand has very slight addictive qualities and not a single reported death by overdose. Pot has the exact opposite effect of alcohol on male hormones, it actually decreases the amount of testosterone produced. Even when abused, pot has very little detrimental effect on one's life. So why are some drugs not only legal, but socially acceptable, while cannabis with its many benefits is demonized as the Devil Weed? I think the effects of the different drugs, and people's perception of what they derive from them, help to determine which drugs are socially acceptable. Both tobacco and caffeine are abused mostly at work to help cope with the 70-hour workweek that's so fashionable in today's society, and alcohol is the relaxant at the end of the day. So if these things help you obtain the almighty $dollar$, then they must be OK. Forget the fact that stress-related illness will become one of the major health concerns of the new millennium. Cannabis on the other hand has a tendency to make people very content with right now; it relieves the anxiety of your house not being the biggest on the block, or your boss being an asshole. Pot allows you to enjoy the little things, and be happy with right now. All of a sudden it becomes obvious why marijuana is so very evil to America's corporate machine. People happy with what they have! Not wanting to buy more! What would happen to the quarterly earnings? Marijuana is not good for America's bottom line and that's the only reason it's so socially unacceptable. If every artist, attorney, musician, doctor, athlete came forward with their cannabis habits, I think most of America would be blown away at just how many "successful" people use grass on a regular basis. In 1970, the American government commissioned a study on the effects of marijuana called the Jamaica Study. This is some of what they found. "While Americans are concerned with the alleged a-motivational and drug-escalation effects of marijuana, Ganja in Jamaica serves to fulfill values of the work ethic; for example, the primary use of ganja by working-class males is as an energizer. Furthermore, there is no problem of drug escalation in the Jamaican working class; as a multipurpose plant, ganja is used medicinally, even by nonsmokers, and is taken in teas by women and children for prophylactic and therapeutic purposes. Further the use of ganja appears to be as a benevolent alternative to heavy consumption of alcohol by the working class. Alcoholism rates are less than one percent annually, in contrast to other Caribbean areas where ganja use is not pervasive and alcoholism rates are as high as 55 percent." I would think the government would be pumping pot into our prisons, not putting people there for using it. They should be prescribing this to our violence-crazed youth instead of an amphetamine like Ritilin. The same reason cannabis is socially unacceptable is the same reason it's illegal, money! A majority of the revenue generated by police departments is through drug seizures, so legalization would translate to a reduction in government funds. I can personally attest to the theory that a serious user of marijuana can have a successful, productive life. In the morning when most people NEED a cup of coffee to get things going, I need a hit to slow things down. When I wake up, my mind is going one million miles a second in a thousand different directions. After I smoke (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, depending on what the rest of the day has in store) things slow down, I'm able to concentrate on one task and I have extremely productive days. If I drink caffeine in the morning, I'm completely lost and I'll have the worst day getting nothing done. Since I have discovered this herb, I have become very successful (by my standards). I'm in the best shape of my life, I am less moody and more productive. More important than anything else, I'm more relaxed and I'm a happier person. Legal recreational use of marijuana will come one day but it should not be on the coat tails of industrial hemp or medical marijuana. Open communication regarding our smoking habits will help to change the negative stigma surrounding people who use marijuana recreationally.
The Sprawl of Shame|
(Breckenridge Makes CoPIRG Top Ten)
By Jim Lamb Feb. 2000
It's recognition the ski resort would probably rather do without. Breckenridge Ski Resort's Peak 7 development concept has been named to the "1999 Sprawl of Shame" list compiled by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG).
The Sprawl of Shame was designed to recognize proposed developments that "experts say could have the most deleterious impacts on open space, traffic congestion, wildlife habitat, scenery and quality of life," according to the CoPIRG winter newsletter.
Woody Beardsley, who has studied the effects of sprawl in Colorado and Montana, chose the 10 proposed developments in Colorado for the Sprawl of Shame. Beardsley said he got the information about Breckenridge from Jeff Berman and Mark Detsky of Colorado Wild.
The Peak 7/Peak 8 development concept, proposed by Vail Resorts last March, calls for 285 acres to be developed into 850 units of residential and commercial developments. Concepts for the Peak 7 portion of the development, which is contingent upon a terrain expansion onto Peak 7, call for a 20,000-square-foot convention center, three-story residential buildings, an ice rink and commercial space. The concept also includes a gondola connecting Peak 7 to the free ski-area parking lots in town, which would be the site of a commercial development with a movie theater.
"The proposed development exemplifies the aggressive trend in resort management where expansion is being pushed by real estate speculation and not a need for more skiing. Besides having significant impacts to wetlands, wildlife and water quality, a number of existing Breckenridge businesses would be hurt as well," states the CoPIRG report.
Jim Felton, spokesman for Breckenridge Ski Resort, called the CoPIRG Sprawl of Shame "farcical."
"The fact that they would name a project that is a concept plan as a contributing factor to sprawl shows how little homework they did," Felton said.
Felton said that he thinks CoPIRG was just looking for big names to include in its sprawl roster to "aggrandize their effort."
Felton attributes sprawl problems to a population growth spurt in the state and the booming nationwide economy, not the ski areas. "Ski areas are a great target for a lot of people who incorrectly prescribe some of the problems we're having in Colorado," he said.
He suggested that if CoPIRG is trying to gain recognition as a watchdog agency, it should do more accurate research.
In response to the comment that the Peak 7 development would harm local businesses, Felton said that the retail and commercial business base in town has grown much faster in the last 10 years than resort ownership of retail businesses.
But some local business owners are continuing to express concern about the proposed Peak 7/Peak 8 base-area developments. Ann Evans, owner of the Joy of Sox, fears the development would take dollars away from Main Street and "kick the bread and butter out of Breckenridge." "I'm not sure Vail is that great for us" she said.
Status of the New Breckenridge
Vail Resorts first publically presented its development concepts for the base areas of Peaks 7 and 8 last March, due to a requirement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Upon seeing the plans, the U.S. Forest Service, which had already approved a terrain expansion onto Peak 7, decided to delay the expansion approval until the town of Breckenridge and the ski resort work out what the final plans will look like.
Since the development concepts have not been officially submitted to the town, the public has not yet been invited to comment on the plans. But the Breckenridge Town Council and ski area representatives have had several discussions about the proposed developments.
At this point, it appears the project is not being supported in its current form by the town council.
According to Councilman Sam Mamula, the council has sent Vail Resorts back to the drawing board a half-dozen times. The town refuses to negotiate on two main issues, according to Mamula. The council is demanding that there is no impact to Cucumber Gulch, a sensitive wetlands area, and they have also said they will not support transferring commercial density outside the town core. This is a key aspect of the ski resort's plan, since commercial space planned for the base areas would need to be transferred from resort-owned land in town.
The council is also questioning whether the gondola will be a benefit for the town or simply for the resort.
Felton said the ski resort is at the point of building the development concept, with input from the town council, "from the ground up."
"We continue to be in negotiations with the town to address critical parking and transportation issues," he said. "We would like to formalize introducing elements of a plan to the town within the next three months."
Other Sprawl of Shamers
CoPIRG is a statewide advocacy group whose mission is to deliver "public interest activism that protects our environment, encourages a fair sustainable economy and fosters responsive democratic government." The group compiled the Sprawl of Shame last summer and released the results in their winter 2000 newsletter, which was recently distributed.
Breckenridge Ski Resort was the only ski area to make the list. Other inductees in the Sprawl of Shame include:
- a proposed development of 5,500 acres north of Castle Rock on I-25;
- a plan to build a Wal-Mart Super Center on the northeast edge of Fort Collins;
- a plan to develop 200 acres at the mouth of Coal Creek Canyon, thus impairing the scenic mountain backdrop between Golden and Boulder;
- and a 30-mile beltway that would connect I-25 to I-70, cutting through the cities of Westminster, Arvada, Golden and unincorporated Jefferson County.
CoPIRG is concerned not just with sprawl, but with the loss of farmland and lack of growth planning in many counties, according to the group's newsletter. They are also working to "expose developers who attempt to derail smart growth bills." You can visit their website at www.pirg.org/copirg
The Story of the Charlie Brown Kick
By Stacy Malkan Jan. 2000Not Forever, but for real. By Doc PJ Feb. 2000
What does it feel like to be this close to a quarter million bucks? Breckenridge resident Steve O'Hearne can tell you all about it. In front of thousands of spectators and a national television audience, O'Hearne, the maintenance manager at Colorado Mountain College, took the chance of a lifetime last month - the chance to kick a 20-yard field goal worth $250,000. By that time, half-time at the Big 12 Championship game in San Antonio Dec. 4, O'Hearne had already beat incredible odds to become a finalist in the nationwide Dr. Pepper Pick Your Kick contest. As best he can remember, he "filled out a thing at City Market" to enter the contest. O'Hearne, who is also known as the Summit County Softball Commissioner, was stunned when Dr. Pepper called to tell him he was a semi-finalist. In retrospect, his response was a bit muted. "I kicked some snow off at the rec center and practiced a bit," O'Hearne recalls. How much did he practice? "Not enough ... about an hour a day." Which means he only practiced for about two hours, since he left town for a two-week vacation in Florida just two days after he got the call from Dr. Pepper. Upon his return from Florida, O'Hearne and his wife were whisked off to San Antonio on an all-expense paid trip from Dr. Pepper. There, at the Alamo Dome, O'Hearne faced a semi-final kick-off competition with the three other people chosen in the nationwide drawing. They started kicking from the five yard line, with the best kicker advancing to the finals. Although he was feeling good that day, O'Hearne didn't really think he'd beat the others guys. "They were all athletic, all younger than me," he says. "One was even a former kicker." Since his name was drawn first, O'Hearne was the first to kick from the five-yard line. He made it. Then one by one, all the others missed from the five. "They just choked. I couldn't believe it," O'Hearne recalls. "I was gung ho. I'm a competitor left over from my softball days." As the finalist, O'Hearne was already guaranteed $10,000. And he also got to "pick his kick" for the next day: he could kick from the 30 yard line for a chance at $1 million, from the 20 yard line for $250,000, or from the 10 for $50,000. At first he planned to go for the million. But in practice, he was having a tough time at the 30 yard line. Although he was making field goals from the 30 about half the time during his practice in Breckenridge, he was only making one out of 10 in Texas - a difference he blamed on the humidity and the lower altitude. He decided to take the safer bet and kick from the 20, which he was hitting at about 60 to 70 percent during practice. The weekend was a whirlwind of parties, a coaches luncheon, more parties and all the Dr. Pepper he could drink. By game time Saturday, O'Hearne was exhausted and tense. It was especially difficult to sit through the first half of the game. But finally, it was time. On national television, O'Hearne said hello to his family and his friends in Breckenridge. Then in front of a record crowd of 66,000, he lined up for his kick and went for it. "I was all fired up," O'Hearne recalls. "I went to make the kick and I Charlie Browned it." Bad. After contact, the ball flooped about 15 yards straight forward, barely getting enough air to make it off the ground. "If you've ever heard of the astroturf bounce, I know what it is now," O'Hearne says. "My foot bounded up and hit the top of the ball instead of the bottom. All I saw was dollar signs with wings." In the tense seconds that followed, O'Hearne's wife Chrissy did the graceful thing, and walked out onto the field to give her husband a hug and a kiss. He had already warned her not to count on the big money. "I said, 'Man, it just doesn't feel right,'" he recalls. "I had a bad practice that morning and I just didn't feel it." O'Hearne regrets not getting in more practice time, but even more, he wishes he had put more effort into mental preparation. "I had all these thoughts in my head," he says. "My recommendation for anyone else doing this would be to prepare yourself mentally more than anything else." Talking about it now, weeks later, O'Hearne seems to be OK about the whole thing. He's not exactly haunted by it, although after watching the failed kick several times on tape, he finally retaped over it with a Simpsons episode. And it's hard to feel too bad for him. After all, he did win $10,000 and all the Dr. Pepper he can drink. Oh, and earlier this year, he won a snowmobile from Budweiser in a random statewide drawing. "It's been a lucky year," he says. The Jolly Lama and the Magic Bullet By Doc PJ Jan. 2000 About this time every year I get a rush of patients with a somewhat vague, but very similar story. "Gee, Doc, I just don't feel good." So after a thorough questioning about signs and symptoms, and a complete examination to make sure there isn't any serious disease, I ask more about their lifestyle and often hear something like this, "I know I haven't been sleeping enough, what with the extra shifts I've worked and the parties and music at night. And, of course, I've eaten, drunk and smoked too much. I feel best if I exercise every day, but I just haven't had the time. So what can I do to feel better? Don't you have some pill or potion, some magic bullet that can help me?" After giving them the good news that they don't have some incurable disease they have no control over, I have to give them the bad news that they're making themselves sick. Or if I'm lucky, they can see it as good news that they do have control over how they feel - and that they'll be all right if somehow they can start getting more sleep, begin eating, drinking and smoking less and exercising every day. In other words, if they can start to do the things they already know will make them feel better. The reality is that most people don't follow my advice even when they ask and pay for it. It's not that my patients are self destructive or choose to be sick, it's just that sometimes it's easier to suffer than to change our everyday habits / addictions. I wish I had that magic bullet that could make positive change easier for people. The county would be healthier and I'd have time to take a writing class. The first step toward change is awareness. As my role model the great physician Groucho Marx once said, "If it hurts to do that, don't do that!" In other words, listen to your body and if you feel bad, you're doing the wrong thing. If you feel good, you're doing the right thing. Of course that has to interpreted with common sense and a longer-term perspective than immediate gratification. A glass of champagne and a chocolate sugar bomb can make me feel pretty good for about a half an hour, but if I do that very often pretty soon I feel pretty bad. I admit that sometimes the symptoms are vague and the cause-and-effect relationships complex, but often if we do take the time to be still and listen to what our hearts are trying to tell us, it can be very useful. Pains in the chest can be from a heart attack or emotional heartache. One can kill you; the other just makes your life miserable. Neither should be ignored. It's like when someone's driving down the road and a little red light on the dash board comes on. It wouldn't be that hard to stop and deal with it, but it's easier ignore it by thinking that it must be a faulty sensor and keep on driving. As they continue on, the light starts flashing brightly and three other lights on the instrument panel start blinking. A little further and steam starts pouring out from the hood, but if they put the windshield wipers on, they can still see to drive and the car is still driving so it can't be that serious. Then they hear this faint but definite ominous sound from the engine, they lose a little power but keep on going. After all, they're only a few miles from home now, hoping if they ignore it, it will go away. I know this is a farfetched story in relation to a car, but it's amazing how long people can deny destructive life patterns as long as "the car keeps running". Then there's a loud metallic clunk from underneath the car, oil sprays on the ground and parts of the car fall off and can be heard bouncing across the pavement as the car lurches to a stop barely making it off the road. As other cars cruise peacefully past, they think to themselves, "Damn, what bad luck. Why do these things always happen to me?" Granted, the signals we get from life aren't always as clear as a red light on the dashboard. At least not always to the person who's driving. That's how doctors, preachers, counselors and other such wise guys make a living. Sometimes someone outside the situation can give us a different perspective. We are often blinded by our desire to have things different than they really are. When I've had difficulties in my life, I've often wished I could ask some wise person like the Dalai Lama for advice. Tibet being too far to go on my bicycle, I usually just pedal a couple blocks from home and consult my wise old blind friend the Jolly Lama instead, as I'm pretty sure they would both tell me about the same thing. "Feeling good is good, feeling bad is not so good. If you pay attention, you'll know the difference." Life is good and bad. Be your best and you'll be all right.
The following is the result of a writing assignment. I chose to write about a close friend whose life is much different than mine. I'm not sure my writing is any better after completing this lesson, but I think my life is richer having tried to "see the world through another persons' eyes." I hope you find it interesting.
I awake to the sensation of pain in my face. The same sensation I fell asleep to. The same sensation that reminds me I have cancer. The same sensation that reminds me I'm dying.
I soon forget that I'm dying as I hear coffee being made in the kitchen. I used to smell the coffee, before my brain surgery. I'm becoming the senseless man. I know the world now only through sound, touch and taste.
You see, my eyes had cancer in them and were cut out when I was 2 years old. It saved my life. I've had an amazingly full and wonderful life in spite of and maybe because of being blind. None of us can know how our lives would be if circumstances were different. We can only live one life at a time. The rest would just be a guess, but I feel I've experienced more than many have with all five senses.
My family was determined to treat me like a "normal" boy. I learned to play ball, ride a bike, fix radios. I learned how to "look you in the eye" when I talked to you. I learned where to hold my hand to shake yours. I learned how to get anywhere I wanted to with a cane and a question. And I learned to read Braille. Books open whole worlds to me, worlds I "see" through the words I read with my finger tips gliding over patterns on a page.
I use the words, "see you later," "I saw a movie," "looks good to me," but, you see, I don't even see in my mind's eye. It's not like a sighted person who closes their eyes and "sees" black or darkness. I have no visual input whatsoever. I have no eyes. You can't imagine my sightless world any more than I can imagine your sighted world. I live in a world of touch and sound.
Taste is minimal without smell. An apple and an onion taste the same. But I can recognize a voice I haven't heard in years. I can tell when I walk past a parked car on the street because my footsteps echo off steel differently than an open street. I can read the print of a decal on the side of my Mt. Java mug.
I'm told I could see until I was 2 years old. I don't know when I stopped remembering visual images. Even those words have no real meaning for me. My mental "images" are all structured in sound and touch ... my friend's footsteps up the stairs, the sun on my face, the pressure of the bed pushing up to meet my back, the vibration of a car driving past, the cold dry winter air flowing in and out of my lungs, my wife's body against mine.
The strange thing is, I'm happy most of the time. I joke about that man who just farted in my pants. I forget I'm dying and get lost in living. I give my friend advice about his life, as consoling him consoles me. Our problems only have as much power over us as we give them. I choose to put my attention on the fact that I am alive, not that I'm dying. I just like living better than dying. It's not through effort that I do it, I just do it. I just forget that I'm dying. It's just my nature to be that way. I'm very lucky, even for a dying blind man. We're all dying. Some of us just live more life along the way.
I don't care about living forever. I just want to live for real.