Andersen: Aspen vs. “the real world”
January 23, 2017
"News from the Real World," featured in the Aspen Daily, confirms that the Great Divide is not continental; it's cultural. The "real world" exists "out there," beyond the mythical boundaries of Aspen, in a kind of twilight zone dreamscape.
For those who find shelter within the Aspen bubble, the "real world" appears at command on whatever screens we choose, assuming we have the fortitude to push parochial boundaries. For the discerning few, virtual "real world" voyeurism is more and more repugnant and less and less frequent.
Years ago, when I was a full-time reporter during the good old days at The Aspen Times (under the beneficent guidance of Bil Dunaway and Mary Eshbaugh Hayes), the "real world" provided benign entertainment because of its remoteness.
I would come home from a day of practicing local journalism in Aspen, pop a cerveza, switch on NPR and listen to sonorous voices from the often unpronounceable names of news anchors contrapuntally delivering a sobering, hourlong news cycle.
I was able to keep that "real world" in a box that I closed and left behind as I explored a different reality through mountain biking, hiking, skiing, concerts, lectures, seminars — in other words, by living the dream in Aspen.
The real world seems yet more remote — a near abstraction — since I've been living the past 25 years up the Frying Pan Valley. My home is set in a rural enclave where a bobcat stalks bunnies in our yard, a bald eagle casts its soaring shadow over our patio, bighorn sheep bed down on our lawn and the only sound at night is the murmur of the river.
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This is why I'm not suicidal about the disastrous election of Donald Trump and why I'm not marching in protest with a "Dump Trump" placard — yet! The "real world," when I choose to view it, is what Macbeth described as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
What is the "real world," if not a virtual-reality entertainment concocted by commercial media? I glimpse it through the lens of Reuters news, "All Things Considered," Amy Goodman's "Death and Dying Report," and select liberal pundits in The New York Times and Time magazine.
Each of us chooses inputs to construct our subjective realities. Doing so, the "real world" becomes an interpretation of shadows cast on the wall, which Plato described in his cave analogy. We see not the true light or actual substance of things, but only shades of gray projected on an indeterminate medium.
My wife and I recently watched "Avatar," but only the first half, which artfully describes a man who finds redemption by falling in love with the natural world while also falling in love with a naturally resplendent — and sexy — soul mate.
We turned off the film as the first bulldozer brought rapine against nature, choosing not to witness the trauma and drama in which the film culminates. We do the same with the "real world" by living in relative seclusion and selecting the beauty of life rather than its horrors.
My preferred selection for reality is the experience I had last week skinning up a 12,000-foot peak amid sparkling snow and pristine natural beauty. The Elk Range provides a welcome buffer, making life in the mountains seem safe, secure and mostly pure.
This notion of separation, however, is seriously deluded because, as John Muir recognized, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Aspen is "hitched" to the "real world," no matter how much we might wish otherwise.
The "real world" intrudes when I learn that 2016 was the warmest year on record, the third in a row, to which Aspen contributes conspicuously through excessive consumption — largely through private-jet traffic. My mountain buffer dissolves when I see Trump take the oath, foreshadowing global catharsis.
Aspen may feel like a mythical, isolated, sheltered Shangri-la, but that only exists in our collective imaginations. The "real world" eventually penetrates the comforting cocoon of subjective reality, no matter how far from the "real world" one may flee.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.