Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 4, 2012
When she stepped off the shuttle at Maroon Lake on Thursday, Jocelle was so excited she jumped up and down. “In my 38 years I’ve never seen snow before! It’s so beautiful!”
Three inches of soft, wet snow covered everything, blotting out the spring greenery with a white blanket. Skies were gauzed in wispy cloud tatters. Like a curtain, they slowly parted, revealing what everyone had come to see.
Jocelle stared up at the snow-covered Maroon Bells, her mouth open, her eyes wide. I scooped up a handful of snow, packed it into a snowball and hefted it at a nearby boulder. Smack! It left a white mark on the red rock.
“Make a snowball,” I suggested.
Jocelle squealed with pleasure. She bent down and scooped up her own handful of glistening crystals. Just as quickly she flung it away as if it were fire. She shook her hands with a surprised expression on her face.
“It burns! It’s so cold!”
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Jocelle lives in the Philippines, where snow is unseen. She was in Aspen participating in a seminar at the Aspen Institute. Her first snow formed a lifelong memory not only for Jocelle but for all of us who shared it with her.
The Aspen Seminar is a rigorous six-day exploration of philosophy. Intellectual focus is demanded as moderators draw out the salient points of complex readings that raise questions about society, ethics, culture, morality and leadership.
The seminar is incredibly powerful as an adult education experience achieved through a group dynamic enriched by an international, multicultural synergy at the seminar table. Friends are made at that table, often lifelong, founded on informed discourse about the values and ideas with which we all struggle.
A peaceful walk in nature during six days of intense mental engagement is the sweetest, most refreshing diversion imaginable. I have the good fortune to guide these seminarians on mountain hikes, to play guitar and sing for them at Toklat at Ashcroft, to celebrate a mountain sunrise with them at Maroon Lake.
My role is to share what I have learned about Aspen – its nature, history and culture. My pleasure comes from getting to know them by chatting on the trail, by listening in on their seminar discussions. For a homeboy like me, these seminars are an open window to the world.
Many in this group were teachers and education consultants. Some were corporate, though not like in the seminars of the past when the room was filled with mostly male CEOs. Most of today’s seminarians are business entrepreneurs with private companies, social entrepreneurs running nonprofits, government officials in charge of agencies. Men and women are equally represented.
One participant last week was a young Romanian woman of Gypsy heritage who is studying on a Fulbright Scholarship at Vanderbilt University. Cristiana has written about Gypsy persecution for The New York Times, and she radiates an otherworldly identity with her proud yet maligned Romani culture. She took the lead role of Antigone in the Sophocles play from 400 B.C. that seminar groups have been performing since Mortimer Adler started the tradition in the 1950s.
On our Ashcroft hike, we talked about nature, starting with geology, which underscores all else. We strolled a quiet trail along the creek, birds singing, water rushing, a cool breeze stirring the air. We took time for brief solos by the water, where the flow of time slows naturally – just 15 minutes of quiet contemplation in nature to rejuvenate soul and psyche.
That evening at Toklat we gathered at the fire ring where Stuart Mace once held court, where John Denver sang “Rocky Mountain High.” With percussion instruments, we found our own rhythm, beating drums and shaking maracas, watching the smoke curl into the starlit sky.
Maroon Lake at dawn was surreal with the lake as a reflecting pool, patches of blue sky emitting rays of sun that struck the Bells and turned them silver. Jocelle held out her arms and twirled in the snow, a huge grin on her face.
The Aspen Institute is not here by mistake. The blend of cerebral challenge and natural grandeur allows an unusual stimulus of which Jocelle was in the thrall. Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke would have smiled.
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