Stone: Money is like water. Aspen is drowning
Way back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we hippies used to be quite fond of the “water” analogy.
We’d say things like: Water is gentle but strong, fierce; but patient; water is, above all, unafraid.
We loved to quote from the “I Ching,” that great work of Eastern philosophy, which says things like, “Water does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature. It remains true to itself under all conditions.”
Then we would nod wisely.
And if anyone wanted to chime in from the sidelines, shouting, “If you love water so much, why don’t you take a bath?” — well, that was one of the hazards of the pretentious-hippie-philosopher business. We could take insults (and even, occasionally, a bath).
It wasn’t until I arrived in Aspen (on a hippie school bus) that I learned the rules of water in the Old West (as opposed to the Far East).
The essential Old West rule was “Water runs uphill to money.”
Being a hippie, I didn’t have any money, but eventually I worked out a combined version of those philosophies — Eastern and Western — that applies quite nicely to Aspen: Money is like water, endlessly patient, endlessly insistent, absolutely shameless.
If I can fiddle with my metaphors, think of Aspen as the Netherlands, surrounded by a vast sea that always seeks to overwhelm any barriers and flood the land, sweeping away everything in its path. Except that the sea around the Netherlands is saltwater and the sea surrounding Aspen is Big Money — and when the dikes protecting this town spring a leak, no little Dutch boy is going to stick his finger in, plug the leak and save the day.
All of this came to mind last week when I read about the latest installment in the long-running Maroon Creek soap opera — let’s call it “The Millionaire and the Mansion.” (I know: ho-hum, yet another millionaire, yet another mansion. How about “The Billionaire and the Behemoth”? Is that better?)
The story pretty much goes as it always does: Some ridiculously wealthy guy wants to build a ridiculously big house in a ridiculously inappropriate spot. The government has tried to control his almost obscene desire for an almost obscenely big house, with, as always, mixed results.
The rich guy seems to have the right to build an 8,500-square-foot house, but he has his heart set on something more like 15,000 square feet, and by golly, he’s not going to let any bunch of pissant local politicians get in his way.
He wins an occasional battle and loses an occasional battle. Every time he wins, he plants his victory flag on his new territory — and every time he loses, he gathers his lawyers and, with his captive pet planners by his side, rides back into the fray.
This time he is, if I’ve got this straight, filing an appeal of a decision to overturn a decision on an appeal of a decision to allow — or maybe to prohibit — something he either did or did not want.
I’m pretty sure I’ve got that right.
And he’s got enough money to keep this going endlessly until he gets his way, battling forward, inch by bloody inch — just like the Marines on Iwo Jima, except that they were fighting to save civilization and he’s fighting to build some big dumb house.
But the bottom line is simple enough: Money will — ah, never mind what money will do. Leave it at this. The bottom line is: Money.
These days, the word “Money” is a complete sentence. Just add a period. “Money.” There you go. Modern grammar in action.
And under the implacable pressure of that money (see “water” and “dike,” above), the slightest flaw in the community’s protective barricades will be revealed inevitably and, once found, eventually will give way.
The weakness in almost every case here is that we are a democracy and our government is run by somewhat ordinary, somewhat reasonable people.
Reason doesn’t do well when facing a savage beast. Try reasoning with a hungry wolf. You say, “I see your point, but may I suggest …” The wolf doesn’t say anything, except perhaps a satisfied “Urrrp!” as he swallows the last bloody morsel.
It takes a certain kind of unreasonable hard-ass to stand up time and again and say, quite simply, “No.” Unmodified, unmitigated, unapologetic. Just “No.”
Instead, led astray by their human nature and by the siren songs of those captive pet planners (most of whom used to work for the government until they saw the light — that’s “light” spelled m-o-n-e-y), our too-human officials always offer some small concession.
And that small concession does not become a moment of shared bliss. (“Kumbaya!”) It becomes the point of attack, the edge of the wedge, the leak in the dike.
And that dike is our land-use code, our zoning regulations. They were enacted for a reason, and they should be treated as rules, not as starting points for negotiations.
Social conservatives are fond of pointing out that the Ten Commandments are not the Ten Suggestions. And, in the same way, the rules of any game are not supposed to be negotiable. Tennis without a net is not tennis. Football without rules is just a brawl. And, for all the spittle-spewing rage of the coaches on the sidelines, referees do not negotiate the rules.
The referee never says, “We’ll give you an extra down.”
And our elected officials have to stop saying, “We’ll give you an extra thousand square feet.”
The umpire never says, “We’ll give you a fourth out.”
And our elected officials have to stop saying, “We’ll give you a fourth floor.”
They need to learn that “No” can stand very nicely all by itself. Juts put a period after it, and it is a complete sentence. “No.”
Just like “Money.”
Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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