Aspen Times Weekly: How Long Do You Want to Live? | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: How Long Do You Want to Live?

Aging in Aspen is different than in other places.

Walk the malls or the streets, and you'll see people of a certain age, call it 60-plus, who glow with life. Take to the steep roads or trails just after dawn and you will be passed by geriatric joggers and cyclists, mixed in with the millennials and Gen-Xers, riding or running up the substantial hills, getting miles in before breakfast.

Aspenites of all ages embrace their physicality. They are in shape and they are either living the later years of their lives to the fullest, on their own terms, or actively pursuing healthy practices so that their futures will also be bright.

At a plethora of events like last week's Aspen Brain Lab and the Aspen Institute's Spotlight Health, presented earlier this summer, Aspenites engage with each other and with new, sometimes revolutionary ideas in health care. Make no mistake, the outsized financial resources of the community allow many to benefit from the best health care that money can buy.

Let's face it, this is an amazing place to grow old.

A POTENTIALLY NEW PARADIGM

Last week, in a lovely private home at the base of Smuggler Mountain, a small group of Aspenites gathered to hear of a budding revolution in health care. As the assembled, ranging in age from late 30s to their mid 70s, relaxed in chairs and on sofas in the well-appointed living room, sipping wine and sampling spring rolls, they listened to a presentation that proposed the potential to change the way they look at their own health. And their future, as well.

While the first nourishing rain in months pelted the roof and shrouded the Aspen Mountain views from the house, J. Craig Venter, who gained fame, acclaim and fortune in the early 2000s for his role in the quest to sequence the human genome, explained how his latest creation, Human Longevity, Inc., in La Jolla, California, is working to turn the world of health care upside down.

Venter, a vibrant 70-year-old, co-founded Human Longevity to provide people with the most complete and intensive genetic and physical assessments of their health that has ever existed. These "road maps" show clients, in intimate detail, the exact condition of their bodies at a given moment in time, and what pitfalls may exist for the future based upon their genetic makeup.

Sitting comfortably with his toy poodle, Darwin, on his lap, the bearded Venter detailed his vision for the company that has raised over $300 million in capital from investors, including Celgene and GE Ventures. The goal is to give people, and eventually health care companies, advance information about pre-existing health issues so that the focus can be on prevention as a health care option, rather than continuing the long entrenched tradition of "fixing" people after they have already developed maladies or life threatening diseases.

Perhaps because of Venter's earlier success with the human genome, his project is receiving much attention. Last year he was here in Aspen to address the Ideas Festival and speak at the Charlie Rose Weekend event. This spring he was the subject of a Forbes Magazine cover story on the project and has also been featured in documentaries produced by production companies as disparate as NOVA and Red Bull TV. Though he is not without his detractors, some of whom find him arrogant and infused with an outsized disrespect for established medical conventions, Venter is once again on a quest for change.

Like Amazon revolutionizing shopping, Tesla challenging the automotive industry and Uber disrupting transportation, Human Longevity's intentions, if successful, would transform the status quo of the medical, pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

THE HEALTH NUCLEUS PROGRAM

The product of the Human Longevity is knowledge on a disk.

Clients currently come to a luxurious facility in La Jolla for a physical assessment unlike any that has previously been available to human beings. Called the Health Nucleus, the procedure calls for a complete review and analysis of a client's physical health. When completed, clients walk away with a disk that details both their DNA and their current state of health.

The first element of the Health Nucleus, and perhaps most revolutionary, is the process of a whole genome sequencing of each client, the actual mapping of their personal genetic code, or their DNA. Every cell of a person has 23 pairs of chromosomes. In each chromosome there are millions of pieces of information. Think of these as individual words or letters that are unique to any and every individual. This is the genetic story of our lives. "Add it all up and there are 6.4 billion characters of code in each of us," Venter said.

This data tells us everything about our physical makeup. The color of our eyes and hair, how tall we will grow, whether we are right-handed or left-handed. And it also tells us what diseases we may be susceptible to, or even pre-ordained for. From cancers to cardiovascular issues, which combined account for two-thirds of all deaths in this country, to metabolic and neurological issues, the genome sequencing provides insights into what potential health issues we should be aware of.

At the completion of the whole genome sequencing, the information is analyzed and cross-referenced with the largest database of full genotypic information that currently exists. A 500-page report is prepared, including with a short summation, for each client. "When we did the first genome sequencing in 2000 we built a $50 million computer and the cost of the process was $100 million. Today, thanks to the progress in computing power, we are able to do a sequence in 12 minutes at a cost of closer to $1,000," Venter said to the intrigued group. "The computing power we have today is 1,350 times greater than when we first started sequencing the genome."

The second component of the Health Nucleus is a full body and brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI. This state of the art technology uses high frequency radio waves to produce vivid, vibrant and previously unimaginably clear images of internal organs. And, in contrast to previous technologies like cat scans, it requires no radiation.

This MRI will show, with a multitude of cross sections, what is inside your body and the state of health it is in. Ever want to see the size of your hippocampus in full Technicolor? How about your kidney in 3-D? At the conclusion of the session, as many as 18,000 images of the client's body can be accessed.

These exams are not just for the aged. In fact, the ability for the Health Nucleus examinations to offer a base line of health information can change the way younger people plan for their health care throughout their lives. "We have performed assessments on people from 18 to 99 years old," Venter said. He recommended that the procedures are appropriate for people, beginning in their 20s and 30s.

REAL LIFE MEANING

But beyond just the novelty and wonder of seeing what the inside of your body looks like, the MRI has the capability of identifying real life-threatening issues that may go undetected in other types of physicals. "Forty percent of the people who undergo the assessments have something to address. Two-and-a-half percent who come in have cancers," Venter said. "We see lots of aneurysms that are treatable and incidents of prostate cancers in men."

"Early detections are extremely rewarding," Venter said with a degree of irony, before explaining his own experience with the assessments. "Last year I underwent a physical with my doctor and showed no indications of any issues. I then went through our Health Nucleus assessment and discovered, to my shock, that I had high-grade prostate cancer." After undergoing treatment last November, Venter is now cancer free.

Choking up in front of the group, Venter also told the story of his science mentor, partner and friend, Nobel laureate in medicine Hamilton Smith, 85, who found he had a deadly lymphoma while undergoing an evaluation using the Health Nucleus assessment. He, too, underwent treatment and is doing well. "Ham would likely not be alive today if we had not begun this project."

The Health Nucleus project is still in its development stages and there are issues to be reckoned with. Colon cancers, for example, cannot be identified reliably as of yet, so colonoscopies are still recommended. Stat News, an online health journalism site produced by Boston Globe Media, recently presented an article stating that there are components of the human genome that have yet to be decoded that could affect the accuracy of current sequencing. Finding physicians who have the capability to review the data properly can be a challenge. And the costs of the Health Nucleus screenings are not currently covered by insurance and must be paid out of pocket.

But Venter is aggressively moving forward. It was announced that Human Longevity will be opening 10 new clinics throughout the nation; unfortunately Aspen is not currently on the docket. And perhaps most importantly, HLI has introduced two new versions of its consumer assessments at price points of $4,900 or $7,500, considerably less than the original Health Nucleus Platinum program that costs $25,000. Expectations are those costs will come down in the future as the program scales up.

While immortality may never be an option, increasing one's life span by a number of years by predicting and preventing treatable disease may well be the wave of the future. When I asked J. Craig Venter how long he wants to live, he looked wistfully across the room toward his wife, Heather. "Well, I'd like to see this project through," he said with a stiff upper lip. Then, in a much softer voice, "And I'd like to spend as much time with my wife as I possibly can."

For those who can afford it and are interested in knowing as much about their health options as is possible, and potentially reducing the onset of preventable disease, the Health Nucleus testing may be very attractive. As Aspenite Joe Nevin, who hosted the gathering, asked, "Why wouldn't you want to know?"

WineInk: Wine and Health — Pros and Cons

It is assumed that those who read this column like to drink wine. But in this day and age where so many of us are concerned about the effects the things we consume have on our health, it is smart to occasionally stop and take stock of our habits. Like drinking wine.

Benjamin Franklin, a noted consumer in the earliest days of our democracy and a lover of drink, once said, "Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance." He, of course, was referring to the psychological aspects of wine drinking. And I think we all can agree that less tension and a less hurried existence are positives.

But beyond the "more tolerant life" there is evidence, and some agreement on the medical front, that drinking can, at least statistically, make you a healthier person.

THE RESEARCH

Many studies have found that an average of two drinks a day for men and one for women (a drink is generally defined as 5 ounces) may have positive health benefits. And as early as 1992, researchers at Harvard concurred with earlier studies and stated that moderate consumption of wine was one of "eight proven ways to reduce coronary heart disease risk." Scientists have long cited the antioxidants, flavonoids, and resveratrol, which are abundant in the skins of red grapes, as being beneficial in reducing the production of LDL (the bad stuff) and cholesterol, boosting HDL (the good stuff) and limiting clotting in blood.

And that's not all. A recent pilot study performed at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA indicated a potentially beneficial link to components found in red wine that may strengthen brain activity while reducing cognitive decline in the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's. While the focus group was small and relied on the use of freeze-dried grape powder rather than actual wine, it did provide researchers with information for the future. Other recent studies have shown positive impacts on reducing risks of colon cancers, as well.

On the downside, another recently released study of 100 other studies, completed by the World Cancer Research Fund in the United Kingdom, indicated that wine consumption has a potential link to breast cancer. According to a BBC analysis, "The report found evidence that drinking an extra small glass of wine every day (10g of alcohol) increases a woman's risk of breast cancer after the menopause by 9 percent." 18 different risk factors were cited, with just one being alcohol consumption, stated the Beeb.

The emphasis for all of us should be on moderation. Studies that show drinking wine, particularly red wine, provides positive health benefits, stress (often in bold capitalization) that the key to getting those benefits is moderation. Simply put, less may be more.

WHAT ABOUT CALORIES?

And then there are the calories. Many wine consumers are concerned about the calories they keep after the glass is gone. A glass of wine can range from around 100 calories per glass for a low alcohol, low sugar wine to as much as 200 calories for high alcohol dessert wines like ports. The trick is finding a sweet spot that is not too sweet and is a bit lower in alcohol.

While most wines do not list the levels of residual sugar on their labels, they do list the ABV, which is the "alcohol by volume." Alcohol has approximately twice the impact on calories, as does the residual sugar. If you want to keep your caloric consumption low, then try to drink wines that are in the 9% to 12% range in ABV.

Still, the difference in a glass of these wines can range from, say, a low of 110 calories to a high of maybe 170 calories for a 5-ounce pour. That is what, a difference of about 60 calories per glass? At the end of the day, or the bottom of the glass, as the case may be, the difference is about 3 percent of the FDA's recommended daily recommendation of 2,000 calories a day for the average woman and less than the 2,500 calories recommended for men.

Perhaps drinking what you like but drinking less of it is the better compromise than switching to something less appealing. However, always remember, moderation is a virtue.

Even Ben Franklin would agree with that.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.

Mountain Mayhem: To Camp or Not To Camp?

Living up in the mountains, particularly in the warmer months, a favorite activity for many is getting out and living in nature for a night or more, also known as camping. It seems like anyone who is anyone does it. They invest in the nice gear, hit up the popular spots and have a generally merry and fun time. This, for as long as I can recall, is how it's always been.

However, there are a few people, even up here in Aspen, who are not the biggest fans of this outdoor activity. A good friend of mine — perhaps you know him, he's Aspen's No. 1 socialite — actually made me see camping in a slightly different light the other week. When a group of us were out in the middle of nowhere, underneath the night's stars next to a warm campfire, he said he doesn't understand what the big deal with camping is. That we all work our asses off daily to own or rent a home, yet we spend all this money on equipment so we can go out for a weekend and pretend to be homeless.

When he breaks it down like this, I have to admit, camping does seem like a silly practice. We take the time and energy to buy the right equipment, pack up our bags and find a spot we can rest our heads for the night that, most likely, will not be very comfortable. Growing up mostly in Colorado, camping has always been a way of life for me. Whether I was out on a school trip or with my family, spending a night in a tent felt like a tradition. I never questioned why we did this; I just joined in. However, now that Aspen's No. 1 socialite has started to question it, I decided to look into the practice.

The kind of camping that many of us participate in is referred to as "recreational camping," at least on the interwebs. Sleeping outside in tentlike structures has been around since the start of humanity. But it became a pleasurable pastime in the late 1800s or early 1900s. That's when people began to camp in national forests, according to the National Forest Service. The organization credits the start of camping in this way: "Perhaps in response to often harsh and demanding working conditions, overcrowded city life, or a pervasive desire for a simpler existence, camping became a popular pastime." Rules and regulations for camping on federal land were first put into place in 1902 as it became clear that this trend was not going away.

Today, we have come a long way from the early 1900s. Camping is intensely popular. The 2014 American Camper Report by the Outdoor Foundation stated that more than 40 million Americans camped in 2013, totaling 597.7 million days. In the United States, the "mountain region" is the preferred location to camp, no surprise there.

The report also states that the two most popular items to take camping, at least in 2013, were a tent and a sleeping bag, neither of which tend to be cheap purchases. In fact, very few things in outdoor recreation are cheap, as most of us know from living in Aspen. Americans spend $646 billion on outdoor recreation each year. Out of that, $143 billion is spent on camping, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. And this number is growing fast.

Perhaps we are overspending to participate in an activity that is far from glamorous (unless, of course, you are glamping). But people love it. The reports I read listed words that are associated with camping. Some of them are "escape," "peace" and "happiness." Those are good words to identify because they help explain why we participate in this activity. Being able to get close and truly intimate with nature is one of life's greatest joys. Even if that means the bed isn't particularly comfortable, the bugs are relentless and the food has some dirt on it. It may sound cheesy, but for me, being out in the wilderness is heaven, and I'm going to continue to do it as long as my legs will take me there … even if I look homeless in the process.

Barbara Platts is going camping this weekend, and she plans to take Aspen's No. 1 socialite with her … even if he isn't into it. Reach her at bplatts.000@gmail.com.

Gunner’s Libation: ‘Ancient Brews’

It's easy to find cold brews on summer days, but here's a twist: a journey back to the alcoholic beverages that people drank thousands of years ago.

Patrick McGovern, a renowned scientist and passionate lover of fermented beverages, brings the history of ancient brewing alive with this fun, tempting and thought-provoking book. McGovern is director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. For more than three decades he's been a pioneer in archaeological chemistry — a field that combines old-school fieldwork with cutting-edge technology such as mass spectrometry and DNA analysis.

The new lab tools are able to identify the chemical makeup of astonishingly small beverage traces that remain on ancient artifacts, such as the stains on beverage containers found in the Egyptian pyramids. McGovern and other researchers then match the chemical fingerprints to various grains, fruits and spices, and come up with a kind of reverse recipe, brought to life thousands of years after the original beverage was originally consumed.

"Ancient Brews" is a geeky and tasty way to learn about ancient history, and the science of booze. McGovern explains the chemistry of fermentation, the molecular components of alcohol (two carbon atoms, six hydrogen, one oxygen) and how our love of alcohol probably originated more than 100 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period, when flowering plants appeared and fruit flies developed specific genes to process alcohol. (Humans still have some of those same genes, by the way.)

But McGovern isn't entrenched in the past. The book contains numerous recipes for home brewers, created in collaboration with Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware's Dogfish Head Brewery. There are also food suggestions based on archaeological findings, such as a lamb and lentil stew that was consumed around 800 B.C. at what was probably King Midas' funeral feast in what is now Turkey.

The recipe for the accompanying beverage (also available bottled through Dogfish Head as Midas Touch) has some familiar beer ingredients (malt extract, honey and hops) but also twists: saffron threads and grape juice. That's a theme in the book: McGovern shows that people had exotic tastes thousands of years ago, all over the world. They weren't just chugging alcohol for the buzz, though that was certainly appreciated, perhaps originally in religious ceremonies.

Numerous archaeological sites now reveal that ancient people often combined what we call beer (fermented grains) with wine (fermented grapes), and also experimented by adding a vast range of local herbs and flavorings.

"Ancient Brews" includes history, science and recipes for several other drinks: Kvasir, inspired by evidence from a 3,500-year-old Danish tomb, uses meadowsweet (or mead wort), yarrow, birch bark and lingonberry.

Ta Henket, inspired by ancient African beverages, includes crushed wheat, flour, hops, dried dates, Irish moss, chamomile, Za'atar (a Middle Eastern spice) and a touch of salt.

Theobroma, suggested by Olmec sites in Honduras dating to 1200 B.C., is made with fermented corn, coffee malt, cocoa, dried ancho chile, annatto seeds and honey.

Chateau Jiahu goes farthest back in time, to 9,000 years ago in northern China, where people made a beverage that combined fermented rice, grape juice, honey, hawthorne and orange peel.

McGovern's mix of gee-wiz science and thoughtful historical context makes "Ancient Brews" a refreshing read, for the summer or any other season.

From the Vault: Forever Young

"Mrs. Bertha Feist honored twice on her 92nd birthday," noted The Aspen Times on July 30, 1959. "One of Aspen's oldest residents, Mrs. Bertha Koch Feist, was honored on her 92nd birthday at two parties last week. On Sunday afternoon, July 19, a number of long-time Aspenites visited her to convey their wishes for a happy birthday. Mrs. Feist also received gifts and cards for the occasion. The following Monday afternoon, she was the guest of honor at an informal party on the porch of the hospital where she resides. In addition to other local friends, a number of people from outside the Aspen area were in attendance. According to the host at one of the parties, Mrs. Feist expressed her appreciation for the remembrances and said she felt honored by the activity. Mrs. Feist first came to Aspen in 1885. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she has lived here most of her life." Bertha Feist lived to be 102 years old, dying in Glenwood Springs in 1970. The photograph above shows Aspen circa 1885, when she first arrived to the area.

This photo and more can be found in the Aspen Historical Society archives at aspenhistory.org.

Summer symposiums

In just taking a cursory glance at Aspen's summer events calendar, one could put a together a curriculum toward earning a master's in music theory, health care, cultural studies, social networking and more. Clearly this is an exaggeration, but the density of thought offerings, analytical discussions, and career inspiration are truly mesmerizing.

Among this summer's symposiums was AccessCircles' Aspen Wellness Forum from July 13-16 with special guest speaker Dr. Mark Hyman, the medical director at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a New York Times bestselling author. AccessCircles is a by-invitation global network for women providing connectivity, knowledge and access to thought leaders, resources and unique experiences, which transform lives. In August 2007, AccessCircles launched with 25 founding members and a preview experience here in Aspen with 45 influential women from around the country. Leading physicians, philanthropists and wellness chefs led discussions in private homes and unique locations in Aspen. Over the past decade, AccessCircles has hosted more than 300 experiences including annual Health and Wellness Forums in Aspen (July), Miami (January) and an annual forum focused on "Social Entrepreneurship, Impact Investing and Strategic Philanthropy." Learn more at http://www.accesscircles.com.

Earlier this summer, the Aspen Wedding Guide presented the Annual Wedding and Event Industry Mixer and Showcase. Wedding and event vendors, planners and industry professionals gathered on the grounds of the newly renovated Wheeler/Stallard Museum to network and learn about one another's specialties. Hi Love Events of Chicago, Aspen and Harbor Island, Bahamas, assisted with the event logistics, Premier Party Rentals provided the beautiful tent made of sailcloth, Malle Gambuti Make up & Styling got guests dolled up, Chef Elissa of D'Elissious Cake Studio served her to-die-for cupcakes, Meat & Cheese brought the meat and cheese, Aspen Event Imprints printed custom trucker hats for souvenirs, Marble Distillery and Wine Bar poured elixirs, and more. For wedding planning ideas, visit http://www.aspenweddingguide.com.

In 1997 Albert Sanford and Dorothy Wildman opened Galerie Maximillian, with the concept to present important historic masterworks on paper alongside contemporary European work with an emphasis on Young British Artists. This summer, the Galerie hit a milestone 20-year anniversary, which was cause for celebration at a midsummer reception with staff, friends and patrons.

On July 15, the seventh annual Aspen Valley Marathon took to the trails with a full 26.2-mile, Boston Marathon-sanctioned race from downtown Aspen to downtown Basalt, a half-marathon from Woody Creek to Basalt and a 5K around Basalt. For race results, visit http://www.aspenvalleymarathon.com.

Contact May with insights, invites or info: allthewaymaymay@hotmail.com

Food Matters: Burn, baby, burn

"DUDE, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?" At least 90 minutes had elapsed since we left the scene, yet my friend looked … sunburned. Flushed the color of a Colorado tomato! His eyes watered and his forehead was sweating. Profusely. Discernable beads of sweat streaked down his temples, despite the fact that we were sitting in an air-conditioned restaurant. He wouldn't admit it, but I knew homeboy was struggling.

Recently we'd departed the Limelight Hotel, where executive chef Christopher Randall had dared us to try a slice of the famed Carolina Reaper, known since 2013 as the hottest chile pepper in the world. He'd acquired the peppers during a spring trip to South Carolina, where the Reaper was first cultivated by a farmer and hot sauce innovator hell-bent on breeding a chile that would earn a spot in the Guinness World Records as the spiciest in the world. The pepper he presented was deep orange-red — nearly fluorescent — and only the size of a marble. However, we were not to be fooled, Randall warned. According to anyone who knows anything about chile peppers: the smaller the specimen, the bigger the burn.

I didn't need to eat the Carolina Reaper to understand its potency. I'd simply whisked a tiny sliver across my tongue — terrified to bite into it — and the tingling lasted a stressful 30 minutes. I was satisfied with such rare restraint. My bud: not so much. All this time later, he personified discomfort and regret.

Little wonder, since the Carolina Reaper measures an average of 1.57 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU) — the rating that indicates concentration of capsaicin, the compound that lends heat. This particular pepper is spawned from the notorious ghost pepper ("bhut jolokia" from India, Guinness record holder from 2007 to 2011), which ranks around 1 million SHU, some 400 times hotter than Tabasco. (Jalapeños, by comparison, typically rank below 10,000 on the scale.) Its creator, "Smokin'" Ed Currie of the PuckerButt Pepper Co., compares its effect to swishing "a mouthful of lava."

What, exactly, is the allure of peppers so piquant that they cause grown men to sweat while sitting still? Why would someone undergo such suffering voluntarily?

The answer, according to sociocultural psychologist Paul Rozin, is a phenomenon he calls "benign masochism." As Rozin wrote in a 1980 paper on the subject, eating spicy foods is a thrill-seeking activity on par with rollercoaster rides and scorching bath soaks. The pleasure, he wrote, results from the sweet relief that follows what the brain originally perceives as a threat (spice).

Even watching someone eat an insanely spicy chile can offer similar joy — perhaps that's why a video of a punk-ass kid swallowing a ghost pepper and then screaming in misery collected 1.5 million hits just days after its release in 2015.

Research indicates that benign masochism is hot, hot, hot across America: By 2019, hot sauces are expected to expand 15 times faster than other sauces on the market. Since Aspen is home base for a bunch of adventuresome maniacs, it figures that folks here seek spice. In April, longtime local Jaffe Gordon-Rissman unveiled How's Your Aspen Hot Sauce, a cucumber-basil-habañero concoction. Aspenites are eating it up. (See sidebar, opposite page.)

While Randall has no intention of dosing Limelight dishes with Carolina Reaper (they're "just for fun," he says, without irony), he does garnish his pimento cheese appetizer with pickled Fresnos and uses chiles in other dishes. (For a recent beer dinner, he did successfully infuse a dish of General Tso's broccoli with a miniscule amount of tropical-tinged Reaper, which he propagates at home.)

Bamboo Bear serves Thai birds eye chile (100,000 to 225,000 SHU) upon request; Bangkok Happy Bowl will make a dish similarly extra-zesty when asked. Mi Chola makes its salsas and hot sauces for all palates. And, of course, spicy margaritas are a year-round staple at watering holes across town.

"People in Aspen are definitely gravitating toward spicy food," says chef Vinnie Bagford, proprietor of the 13-month-old Bamboo Bear restaurant. "I see a lot of people requesting the Thai bird's eye chili — it is very unique. The food is not the same if I use jalapeño or another pepper versus the bird's eye chile — it gives you the authentic flavor of Southeast Asia. And on takeout orders people are always asking for a side of sambal or Sriracha."

Over at bb's, chef Jeff Casagrande brings the heat via a variety of chile peppers: chicken lettuce wraps see cubed meat coated in a gochujang, or fermented Korean chile paste, served with a side of kimchi. He dusts sweet potato fries with a heady combo of Hungarian and sweet smoked paprika, Tajín chile-lime seasoning, chile powder, and cumin to dip in chipotle ketchup; Russian dressing offers soothing solace. And Casagrande's new crispy chicken sandwich is slathered with aioli made mildly mouth-tingling thanks to aji amarillo, a yellow Peruvian pepper ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 SHU (take that, White House Tavern!).

"It's amazing how different cultures use spice: fresh, roasted, pickled, ground, fermented, and pastes or purées," Casagrande says. "I do see more people trying to expand to trying more spicy foods, and I think they should."

Spice tolerance may be a matter of provenance and exposure. As a Massachusetts native who once called soda "spicy," I didn't grow up enjoying much heat. One time I watched my dad accidentally consume one of those shriveled blackish-red peppers in General Tso's chicken and I'm certain that was the first and only time I've seen him cry. Mild salsa was about as much as I could stand when I moved to Colorado in 2012; now I prefer medium and will tolerate hot on occasion. I've been a chili judge more than once at the Snowmass competition. It's an ongoing evolution.

"A little goes a long way," continues Bagford, who sources Thai chiles at Asian markets in Denver. "Other times, two or three in a salad are needed. (Often) I put them in pho and then pull them out so the broth does not get too hot when I am eating my own bowl."

Chef Will Nolan ticks off a grocery list of chile peppers that he uses in dishes at the Viceroy Snowmass: chile de árbol, serrano, poblano, jalapeño, even raw cayenne, which "are great fresh and sliced thin, pickled, smoked, or dried and ground," he says. "I also use these bad ass Italian peppers: peperoncini piccanti calabresi … (and) Shishito from Erin's Acres — the cool thing about these is that 1 in every 10 are hot."

Shishitos (20-500 SHU) are ubiquitous in Aspen, and not only at sushi restaurants, where the East Asian peppers are a staple starter. Chef Casagrande told me that bb's shishito peppers with soy caramel, garlic chips and sesame seed is one dish he can't take off the menu.

As for my buddy, who was exposed to spicy foods as a child born in South Korea, when I ask him to reflect on that fateful afternoon at the Limelight: "I ate another piece later that afternoon," he mentions casually. Was it any easier? "Nope," he said. "Still f—ing hot."

Benign masochists may enjoy a newer, bigger challenge soon. In May of this year, a new contender applied for Guinness World Record consideration: a pepper by the name of Dragon's Breath, reportedly a fantastically fiery 2.4 million SHU. Got milk?

amandaraewashere@gmail.com

Facing the Music: Observations from the Music Tent

An occasional hazard at concerts in the Aspen Music Festival tent is the behavior of fellow listeners. Though hardshell in its current iteration, the venue is informal compared to the concert halls of cities. It is a relief not to comport with suit coats, ties and high fashion, but respect for the music is still key, for addicts of classical music follow form as well as expression, and visual distraction can rise to the level of the aural. Thumbs rifling the program page by page, pausing at real estate ads, can be as disruptive as sibilant whispers. Recent standouts of my own have included a young woman in front of me undoing and redoing her hair, twisting it into a bun bound by an elastic, then freeing it for another shot. Though unapproved photography is prohibited, abuse can go viral as individuals with phones snap soloists and families pass photos. When a patron whose lap between me and the orchestra stage was scrolling stiletto pumps, site after site, I suggested she pocket the device until intermission. After complying, she whispered to her right about the grouch to her left. Such infractions would be wimpy at a pop concert, and I realize that intolerance like mine has been captured by the one-liner about the stickler who growled to his neighbor, "Would you please stop breathing until the music is over." Nonetheless, even in a tent, I hold that attendees might sit still and listen to the music.

Sunday dress rehearsals can be worse than concerts for undress behavior, for among other laxities they coincide with release of the Sunday New York Times. Empty bench space stretches for spreading out sections and pawing through favorites while rattling newsprint and spread-eagling the folds. When a particular Sunday included Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 in D minor, I skirted Times readers by settling in the side section nearest the basses, midway up the slant, with a view of the pianist's face rather than his hands. I had discovered this concerto during my teens when I checked an LP out of a local library. I played it obsessively, entranced; it engraved itself in my neurons; it remained my favorite of the late romantic concertos; and some players consider it the most technically challenging. It was halfway through the first movement that I noticed a woman seated at the end of the bottom row, the spot nearest the stage, making weird movements. What now?

She was partly obscured by another figure and I leaned for a clearer look. Her head was graced with reddish hair that appeared to be dyed, pulled to one side by a golden clasp that created a bald spot that was surely unintended. Without seeing the face, I guessed the head to be in its 60s or 70s. It nodded forward and back, turning to either side. It moved in tandem with her upper body, which swiveled to the side, or both ways in alternation. Every movement that she made was precisely coordinated with the score, its phrases, dynamics and tempo. She sprung, with the pianist, the composer's foreknown surprises. For orchestral tutti, she spread her arms as if conducting.

I stopped watching the pianist, a 25-year-old virtuoso, and shifted for a complete view. She clearly knew the music as well as I, and better, and the more I stared, the more her movements heightened the music's expressiveness. Rather than conducting, she seemed to embody the music through spontaneous choreography. She and the music fused. Suddenly I realized I was deeper into the score than ever before. Dopamine surged. I was absorbing the concerto through my eyes as well as my ears, a fusion of senses that proceeded a step farther. During childhood I was shamed for still crying like a baby as I approached adolescence, a humiliation that instensified until, at age 12, my ability to produce tears switched off forever. Even after tragedy, my system doesn't allow the catharsis of tears. Puddling over works of art, of course, is different from reeling over the blows of life, but even the strongest musical chills produced faint leakage. And at one liberating point, as I watched this unlikely figure embody this treasured music, my eyes flooded.

When the concerto ended at intermission, I wanted to approach the woman to ask whether she played or conducted the concerto, but at every rehearsal break I dash to the stand to be first in line, snaring coffees to share with a bassoonist friend with during his few free minutes. When the bell rang and my friend returned to duty, I dashed back inside and found the woman seated in the same spot, reading the program. I sped down to her and said, "Excuse me, but I saw you reacting to the Rachmaninoff and I wondered whether you play the concerto."

She smiled, appeared eager to answer, and replied, "No, but my sister does." I could see that she was trying to speed read the note for the next piece before it began, so I thanked her, left, and never saw her again.

Admittedly, a listener with the heaves might not wear well, and my personal experience was a one-time event. That exception behind me, I return to holding that audience members should shut up, sit still, and face the music.

Book Review: ‘The Almost Sisters: A Novel’

"The Almost Sisters" is, at its heart, a story about four generations of family. How author Joshilyn Jackson defines family, however, isn't just by bloodlines and gene pools.

Describing the book as I've done already to a few friends — all in the form of recommendation — makes it sound far-fetched and soap opera-ish, but there's nothing but authenticity and compelling storytelling driving it. Bear with the summary: it's worth it.

Leia is a successful comic-book author living in a Washington suburb. But Leia's roots are in the town of Birchville, deep in the heart of Alabama, where her father's family, the Birches, has been quite literally the pillar of the community for generations. Grandma Birchie is nearest and dearest in Leia's heart. She admires her grandmother almost blindly as a dynamo independent spitfire with thick Southern charm and impeccable manners. She also cherishes that Birchie is the only connection to her father, who died when Leia was young.

With Birchie comes her best friend, her true soul mate Wattie, who is Birchie's social equivalent in the local black community. Thick as thieves, these two.

When Leia gets the call that Birchie is sick, she doesn't think twice about taking a long-term hiatus from her daily routine. Life is headed toward a big shake-up anyway since she just found out she is pregnant with a baby boy who was conceived with a man wearing a Batman costume at a comic expo, and Leia hasn't talked to him since.

But it turns out that Birchie is hiding more than the severity of her illness. She has a bona fide deep, dark secret that tests the normal boundaries of love and friendship, but ultimately strengthens them.

Are You Enlightened? Observations from the Deprung Loseling Monks’ annual visit to Aspen

The Deprung Loseling Monks made their annual summer trip to Aspen last week where they performed a number of ceremonies and blessings, including the creation of a sacred mandala at the Aspen Art Museum. While Buddhism is one of the more peaceful and accepting religions, it is also one of the most opaque, especially for the pragmatic, I-don't-really-do-Eastern-mysticism Westerner.

However, in case you have ever fantasized about shaving your head and moving to Tibet, or perhaps you're just wondering how enlightened you really are, here's a quick test to see if you are on course for Buddhahood.

 

1) "Ends" and "Beginnings" are not in your vocabulary.

The Endless Knot or Shrivatsa is one of the eight auspicious symbols in Tibetan Buddhism. It has no end and no beginning. Don't believe it? Let your eye take a few spins and notice how uncomfortable it becomes. We like beginnings and endings, lovely fram es, arcs and bookends. It's there, and then it's gone. Buddhists see the world more as an endless cycle, limitlessly connected and interdependent.

2) You have a deep understanding of your pencil.

What could be more basic, right? But, wait, as Lexie Potamkin pointed out in a special talk at the Aspen Chapel last Sunday, it took thousands of people from all around the world to make that pencil. The wood is cedar from the Great Lakes. The wood was cut from a saw made from steel, made from iron ore. The graphite is from Sri Lanka and mixed with Georgian clay and Mexican wax. The metal piece, which holds the eraser, is made of Canadian zinc and Chilean copper. The eraser is made from a rubber tree in the Congo of Africa, mixed with seed oil from Indonesia and pumice from Italy. The wood is painted yellow, which comes from a glossy lacquer made of castor oil, which came from … You're getting the picture, yes?

All these people all around the world are at once deeply isolated, and deeply connected even if they don't know each other exists.

3) You look amazing in yellow and maroon and can pull off a big hat in church.

The chougu, or Kasaya clothing worn by the monks dates back centuries. Saffron was easy and cheap back in the day (not to mention it really catches the spirits' eye.) The hats are auspicious, naturally, and date to around the early 15th century. You know, when people actually dressed up.

4) You have a great baritone chanting voice.

It's a sound you've heard before, re-appropriated in film and television, but to experience a chanting session live is at once peaceful, reverent and a little scary. It begins as deep, long pulses along low frequencies that reverberate in your chest. The pulses grow and repeat in escalating numerical patterns and then, just as you become totally immersed in the sonoric chaos, they break into song.

5) You know the difference between happiness and joy.

White truffles on your pasta, powder days, watching your kid hit a home run — these are all examples of joy. If you spend time in this valley and are fortunate enough to partake in its many blessed activities, then you know all about it. But joy is not happiness. Happiness comes from within. Happiness stares circumstance — any circumstance — right in the face and says, "Not interested."

6) You can let go of hate and resentment, even on a genocidal scale.

Tourists are annoying, but what's really annoying is when the country next door attempts cultural and physical genocide on you and everyone you love. So, why did the Chinese so brutality attack the Tibetan monks and are comfortably approaching their seventh decade of occupation?

"Because they could," Lexie Potamkin explains. "It's the oldest story in the world. But, you know I have spoken with the Dali Lama about this and he has absolutely no hate for the Chinese. He has forgiven them completely."

7) You're a house guest of the Potamkins.

Lexie and Robert Potamkin host the monks here every summer. Lexie, a self-ascribed "Inclusiastic," was raised in an open-hearted, open-minded Methodist family. Former Miss World USA, former New York PR exec, she went back to school and earned a master's in religion and inter-spirituality. Twenty years ago she attended a lunch with the monks and was gobsmacked. We have her generosity to thank for their annual visits. A spiritual and community leader in her own right, if Lexie flies you to Aspen every summer, you've got something special going on.

8) Monks spend five long days evoking your spirit through an intricately patterned geometric graphic made of brightly dyed sands, and then throw you, ceremoniously, into a river.

This, of course, is the process of the mandala. The monks each become versed in a number of different designs and they choose a specific one depending on what diety, or enlightened being, they think is relevant. This year they choose one that specializes in healing conflict. This is the third year they they have constructed the mandala at the Aspen Art Museum, moved from its original location at the Aspen Chapel to be more central and accessible.

The process ends with its "dismantling." After they smear the pattern into oblivion, the blessed sands are passed out to spectators. The remaining particles are taken to the river and dumped. Water is the most effective way to disburse the spirit back into the environment. As the Drepung Loseling's spiritual director, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, explains, "Embracing impermanence can be very healing. And always remember, the enlightened presence is everywhere." Do keep that in mind the next time you catch a rainbow in the Roaring Fork.