Paul Andersen: Fair Game
The Aspen Times reported the results of a survey last week finding that most Aspenites enjoy their lives here. This is good because if living in Aspen is anything less than euphoric, there is a bus ticket to North Dakota with your name on it. From North Dakota one might look back at Aspen with a certain longing. Not that North Dakota is a miserable, dreary state; it’s just not on a par with Aspen as a paragon of fun, glamour, sex and culture. The survey reported that 95 percent of Aspen respondents rated their overall quality of life as “excellent,” which means they ski all day with Klaus Obermeyer, party all night with Paris Hilton and still find a moment to sip a thoughtful latte with Walter Isaacson.Still, basking in the golden glow of Aspen has its challenges. Noteworthy homeless man Jimmy Baldwin, who currently resides in a North Dakota jail, is one of many for whom the Aspen experience was less than “excellent.” A recent Aspen export – via Greyhound – Baldwin might have some lurking resentment. Exposing the chinks in Aspen’s polished veneer is not something the Chamber Resort Association chooses to do even though the chinks are large enough to swallow individuals and even entire classes of people. That’s the summation of a book ignominiously titled “The Slums of Aspen,” the authors of which target the old mining town with a sociological broadside. Aspen, they say, is a feckless, gilt-edged sweatshop for the beleaguered working class whose toil elevates the quality of living to the “excellent” category – for those wealthy enough to enjoy it.Imagine the vantage of a house cleaner, gardener or dishwasher commuting into town from a downvalley ghetto, passing the fleet of private jets at Sardy Field. It is from such stark contrasts that the “Occupy” movement has gotten up steam. But not all jet-setters live “excellent” lives here. Brooke Mueller, the estranged wife of rage-aholic Charlie Sheen, is today’s poster child for Aspen debauchery, but she’s got plenty of company in the bowels of Aspen’s lavish and insatiable maw. Local mental-health practitioners attest to Aspen’s notoriety as an intoxicating paradise where suicide is, for some, the only one-way ticket out – via Smith & Wesson.I lived in Aspen for 10 glorious years before moving to the Fryingpan Valley 20 years ago, and I often reflect that my Aspen experience was more than “excellent.” It helped that I was young, single, healthy, free and unapologetically hedonistic. It also helped that I had a great job. Life was often blissful for a 30-something Aspen Times journalist who had carte blanche to delve into Aspen’s many blessings. Whether in the mountains or the Music Tent, I made it my job to absorb everything good this place had to offer, and there was plenty to absorb. Even now, at 60, there still is. Perhaps the survey reveals more about the Aspen demographic than it does about the city itself. Unlike Florida or Arizona, people don’t come here to die. They come to Aspen to live and to thrive among healthy, beautiful people sharing cultural amenities that rival a big city, all without the noise and decadence of urbanity. Those who are attracted to living here, mostly in affluent luxury, probably live “excellent” lives wherever they go. Jimmy Baldwin will return to Aspen. Even the most jaded misfits come back. You can leave Aspen, but you can never leave it altogether. Something remains. Call it a soul connection or a sense of place or a nostalgic reminiscence of messy vitality, but once you have lived here, it’s difficult to imagine living anywhere else. But how does one live an “excellent” life? It’s more than play, and it’s more than pay. It’s more than skiing powder or hot-tubbing under the stars or dinners at Cache Cache or swelling with the crescendo of a Mahler symphony. Excellence, in what Mortimer Adler dubbed “The Athens of the West,” means the freedom to pursue excellence in the holistic blend of body, mind and spirit. Aspen is the draw, surrounded as it is by natural resplendent beauty, but it’s made excellent by the people who live here – those who underwrite the culture, who preserve the wilderness, who appreciate the beauty – those fortunate few who celebrate life in a daily banquet that is excellent by any standard – especially if you’re looking back at it from a North Dakota jail.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times.
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