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The do-it-yourself home improvement plan

Essay by Martha Quillen

Local Life – May 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHAT’S A COUNTRY to do when a war goes wrong? Well, arguing and grandstanding come to mind. In recent months, we’ve heard the Bush administration, Congress and the press claim that these are unique times, with a pre-emptive war, a renegade Congress, and a disparate public. But as it turns out, when it comes to politics, there is not much new under the sun.

Recently, it was brought to my attention that March 2007 was not the first time that Congress tried to curb a war by denouncing a President’s plans and mucking with his budget. In 1848, Abraham Lincoln addressed Congress to champion a congressional vote “declaring that the war with Mexico was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President.”

Perhaps the most interesting facet of Congressman Lincoln’s anti-war speech, however, was his declaration that: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable — most sacred right — a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.”

Clearly, making embarrassingly short-sighted proclamations isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. But when President Bush stood beneath a huge Mission Accomplished sign aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003, he delivered what would prove to be a mind-boggling excess of dubious announcements:

“Admiral Kelly … officers and sailors … my fellow Americans: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

“Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before.”

“Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime. With new tactics and precision weapons, we can achieve military objectives without directing violence against civilians. No device of man can remove the tragedy from war; yet it is a great moral advance when the guilty have far more to fear from war than the innocent.”

Despite all of the gaff Bush has gotten for mis-speaking, this was an extraordinarily well-crafted speech (and far more inspirational than Lincoln’s polemic about the Mexican War). Bush’s Battle of Iraq speech had flair. Take for example: “Men and women in every culture need liberty like they need food and water and air. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.”

IT ALSO EXUDED confidence and conviction: “The advance of freedom is the surest strategy to undermine the appeal of terror in the world. Where freedom takes hold, hatred gives way to hope.”

Admittedly, a substantial percentage of Americans only noticed the President’s military attire and theatrics (since they were already upset about the pre-emptive nature of the Iraq War, errors in national intelligence, and growing anti-American sentiments overseas). But George W. Bush’s victory announcement was meticulously planned, the place carefully chosen, the President well-prepared, and the speech well-written.

Things went wrong, however — in the long run and the short one. Flair, passion, inspiration, and grandiose aspirations make for good speeches, but such qualities are problematic. In real life, glorious ideals are easier to talk about, than to deliver. They’re abstract and immeasurable. In fact, they’re not even easy to define. What constitutes freedom, liberty, justice, democracy, and human rights?

How would you eliminate inequality, fraud, and corruption? At what point would the majority of citizens (regardless of age, class, sex, race, and ethnicity) feel satisfied that they had achieved more representation, less government intrusion, an agreeable level of taxation, “a square deal,” “a fair deal,” or equal opportunities?

There’s no way to assess such things, yet this is the stuff political promises are made of. Of course, citizens do make more concrete demands — for anti-abortion legislation, gay marriage, a higher minimum wage, tax cuts, immigration controls, roads, dams, schools, parks, open space, Social Security benefits….

But the citizens seldom agree on such things. Thus politicking gets heated and people start worrying about polarization.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, however, Matthew Warshauer, author of Andrew Jackson and the Politics of Martial Law: Nationalism, Civil Liberties, and Partisanship, was featured on Book TV, and he insisted that partisanship has always been a huge factor in American politics (and was, perhaps, even worse in Jackson’s day). Warshauer understands the disillusionment Americans feel today, but he blames it on machine politics instead of partisanship. He feels that the money and machinery behind politics have threatened American democracy since the early 1800s, and current technology has made that machinery truly formidable. Today, our political parties can poll, measure, test and orchestrate everything in order to get votes.

Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen, on the other hand, believes that American “political reporting and commentary has become a burlesque show,” dominated by the likes of Ann Coulter and Stephen Colbert. “When satire morphs into mockery, and mockery morphs into savagery and suddenly it’s all savagery, all the time–well, does any of that really advance the debate?” she asked in a recent column. Quindlen believes we need to get serious.

Of course, Quindlen might also agree that we’re too partisan, and too dominated by monied interests, and that there’s too much “machinery,” and too many unworthy candidates, which would make her just like the rest of us. Most Americans seem to agree that our political process could use some improvement.

So maybe we should try to reduce the machinery and partisanship and reject savage put-downs. Or maybe we should start laughing at all those grandiose promises to deliver justice, liberty and equality as much as we laugh at all of that savage mockery. Or maybe we should try all of the above. Or none of it.

Unfortunately, a lot of proposed political solutions in recent years have not only been wholly partisan, they also constitute a huge infringement on freedom of speech — ideas like shutting down FOX or making the BBC stay home; and firing Rush Limbaugh or eliminating Comedy Central.

Recognizing and identifying some of the things that are wrong with our world may be the first step toward fixing it. But what’s the second step?

Hardly anyone seems to agree. And we have disagreements at the local level, too. In Salida, everything but income seems to be skyrocketing — water and sewer rates have soared, gas and electricity costs have mounted, home prices have ballooned — and arguments have blossomed accordingly.

The majority of locals seem absolutely sure that letting Christo drape the Arkansas will either be splendid — or disastrous. Some people love having deer in town; others watch in horror as they munch down shrubs and gardens. Most residents aren’t thrilled when a new mine, real estate development or shopping center is proposed, yet others think we need the jobs.

WE LIVE IN A WEALTHY NATION famed for shopping and excess. But the most affordable things in the U.S. are things we don’t need — junk food, debt and disposable merchandise. Time, on the other hand, is in short supply. A lot of people don’t have enough time to read a book, grow a vegetable garden, fix a homemade meal, or even to get to know their kids.

In fact, I suspect Americans keep accumulating more and more stuff and bigger and bigger houses because they can’t afford the things they really need — like peace of mind and security. No matter how much Americans own, financial disaster is just a hurricane, tornado, illness, lay-off, or lost pension plan away.

And to make matters worse, Americans stricken with life-threatening illness, chronic disability, or Alzheimer’s get a huge dose of bureaucracy with their treatment. Patients have to figure out medical options, payment plans, insurance coverage, available services, community facilities, free resources, and how to co-ordinate tests, rehab, transport, home nursing, and medical equipment, plus they have to figure out their legal status (what to do about wills, estates, bank accounts, and property), and exactly who needs what paperwork to keep everything on track.

An era of enthusiastic marketing and dynamic profits seems to have fueled bureaucracy, mismanagement, greed and corruption, along with insider trading, corporate raiding, business espionage, crooked CEOs, constant telemarketing, junk faxes, and identity theft.

Jobs have been lost here at home. But far worse things have plagued the third-world, such as poverty, starvation, slavery, and genocide. Half of the world seems to blame the U.S. for all of this, and the other half wants to move here. Mexican farms are failing, and undocumented immigrants are streaming across our borders.

But Americans can’t seem to agree upon what to do about anything.

Yet despite our political differences, disillusionment, anger, and worry about the future….

And despite the emotional impact of living in a country where the citizenry is divided, and the war is going sour….

And despite very real and significant differences in our beliefs and religions….

I live in Salida, where half of the drivers don’t take the right-of-way when it is clearly theirs; where people routinely offer to let me go first in line at the grocery store; and where people regularly ask me if I need a ride every time I’m out taking a walk.

Oh sure, an occasional driver seems to think he’s practicing for a NASCAR race, and sometimes someone gets discombobulated and vents his fury in public.

YET IT STRIKES ME that when it comes to person-to-person contact, Salidans are actually nicer to one another than they used to be — in those days before skyrocketing housing prices, constant telemarketing, annoying cell phone users, growth, sprawl, rate hikes, and all of the rest of it.

Perhaps that’s only because I’m getting older and grayer, and people are just naturally kinder to old ladies. But I don’t think so.

Recently I was looking in old Mountain Mails for an item that happened in June of 1975, and was startled by all of the murder and mayhem in those newspapers. There was a big trial going on. A woman had been murdered after leaving a Buena Vista bar one evening, and right in the middle of that trial, another person was shot and killed at the same bar, plus there were many unrelated assaults, fights, brawls, and a suicide that month. If all of that happened in a month in 2007, everyone would be sure the apocalypse had arrived.

So I asked Ed if Colorado mountain towns were really as rough and tumble in those days as I recalled. And he laughed. “Well of course, they were,” he said. “How could you forget? We lived in Kremmling then.”

SO I REMEMBERED. I remembered when I decided to start packing my lunch after crouching under my table on two different occasions during shoot-outs at the Hoof and Horn. And when our receptionist couldn’t come to work because she’d been arrested for beating up a woman who’d flirted with her husband. And when our only other employee couldn’t come in because she’d been arrested for felony menacing after trying to shoot someone. And that all happened during our first winter in Kremmling.

“Miners, ranch hands, and loggers,” Ed mused. “A lot of that work was pretty dangerous. Remember when Tom had that accident with the chainsaw? And when Karen got tossed on her head during a barrel race? I guess when you can be killed at any moment, it makes you play hard and drink harder.”

Yep, there was a lot of work for young men, then, and considerable tolerance for their high spirits, plus it was the 1970s not the 1870s, so young women were frequently just as wild. There were good jobs, then, too, and great pay, and country bands played every weekend. Young families had new houses and pickups; mothers could afford to stay home with their babies if they wanted to; and grandparents, aunts and uncles often lived nearby and pitched in to help with child-care and house repair.

But I prefer the way things are now, which is strange, because I really believe better jobs and pay are important. But looking back, there was altogether too much shouting, brawling, drinking, domestic violence, and unhappiness then. Of course, there’s still too much violence and unhappiness, and always will be. But we recognize such problems more, and try to intercede before the gunfights.

These days, despite all of our political divisiveness, people seem happier — at least here in Salida. Things in Salida seem pretty good right now.

Ever since the twenty-first century started rushing by, tossing years behind faster than I can get my house clean, I generally feel like I’ve got more work to get done in a day than I can accomplish in a week.

In this new millennium, the newscasters sound belligerent, the world feels rushed, and the phones keep ringing — even out on the hiking trails (and I don’t carry a cell phone with me).

Today, ordinary people are better wired than NASA was in the 1960s, yet it seems like something is always down — the server, the printer, the electricity. Average incomes can’t keep up with the soaring costs of medical care, insurance, and dental work. And college tuition keeps many young people in debt for decades. Recently I read that 40% of Americans worry about becoming homeless — and I wondered where they found 60% who didn’t.

Yet it strikes me that people here in Salida are trying to be kinder, gentler, and friendlier than they used to be. And for that I’m grateful.

POLITICAL DIVISIONS are a curious thing. When I Googled Lincoln’s quote about a people’s right to rise up and shake off their government, I found 649 entries, and a notable percentage (say 6-8%) expressed Southern resentment toward Lincoln, whom they tended to classify as a miserable man and an even worse President, and about the “War of Southern Secession,” which they believe had nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with states’ rights and Lincoln violating the U.S. constitution.

To me, it seems like a long time to hold a grudge against a bunch of people you never knew. But it’s nothing like some of the feuds in the old world, which can be traced back through several millennia.

Also, anti-Lincoln sentiments should be kept in perspective. Richard Nixon’s assertion that “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal,” can be found on 17,400 Google sites. The Pussycat Dolls, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” made 25,500 sites, and Shakespeare cleans up with 161,000 entries for “To be or not to be: that is the question.”

Just imagine how influential the Pussycat Dolls and Shakespeare might be if someone could figure out a way to package them together. But there seems to be a human instinct to divide people up and then group them back together by creed, color and culture in order to establish their comparative worth and pit them against each other.

Currently, the political apparatus to divide and enrage American citizens is working overtime. There are numerous books available about how Islam is a violent religion that should be curtailed, and Christianity is both violent and anti-scientific and must be suppressed. There are also countless books about how everyone from liberals, to homosexuals lack proper values and should be….

Actually complainants seldom make it clear what should be done about the immoral, the sex-crazed, the addicted, and the liberal. Presumably, however (since the right keeps trying to make this a political matter), those who lack proper values should be kept in jail until God can destroy them.

RIGHT NOW, inciting xenophobia may be the surest way to get your book published. Serious journalists and academics are suggesting that we stop the talk shows, stop the jokes, and stop the churches. But how are we supposed to do that? The U.S. Constitution doesn’t make provisions for thought police, religious oppression, and governmental vetting of ideas. In America, you are not allowed to blow up Fort Sumter or burn down a church, but you can think or believe any stupid thing you want. That’s what freedom is all about.

Yet Salidans seem to be working things out.

When we started Colorado Central, art was a fledgling industry here, and there was quite a bit of uncertainty and dissension about how to get things going. Artists seemed desperate to be taken seriously and not dismissed as hobbyists, which led to considerable disagreement about the distinction between fine art, kitsch, and crap, which encouraged considerable criticism and cattiness. But Salidans seem to have gotten past that. Now there’s a level of acceptance, a tolerance for difference, and an encouragement of amateurs. There are open mics, art classes, writing sessions, weaving groups, quilting clubs, dance lessons, presentations at the Steam Plant, activities in the parks, and an atmosphere of fun, friendship and inclusion.

— And I am positively astounded by the number of Salidans who currently do volunteer work for service organizations, youth centers, local libraries and theater productions, support groups, parks, historic preservation, art organizations, churches, political parties, and fundraisers — and to help the elderly, the handicapped, the underprivileged, and those in need of tutors, language instruction, meals, rides, and medical care.

Modern political discourse is divisive. But so was the Old West, where settlers fought natives; cattlemen clashed with farmers and sheepherders; and outlaws battled lawmen. Western Colorado as we envision it — quiet, peaceful, and rural — thrived for a very short-lived period. By the mid 20th century, economic reversals plagued mountain towns. And in the 1980s economic disaster struck the Upper Arkansas valleys; unemployment in Salida rivaled Great Depression standards, and unemployment rates in Leadville were even higher.

After the trains quit coming and the mines closed, there was clearly a need for new commercial enterprises, but there was also resistance. Tourism seemed like a natural choice for redevelopment, but it provided mostly low-paying, service-sector jobs. Real estate development offered more monetary potential, but it cluttered up the countryside, required costly infrastructure, and could eventually devalue our natural assets. Not many ideal solutions hopped to the forefront.

In the 1990s, Governor Roy Romer tried to jumpstart rural economies by promoting planning and visioning, but that frequently backfired. In Chaffee County planning and visioning sessions often inspired fury, because as it turned out, one popular plan was to use zoning to eliminate everything you didn’t like that somebody else owned: trailers, modular homes, cyclone fences, used car lots, junk yards….

Another common strategy was to require businesses to install improvements at their expense: things like highway landscaping, better signage, benches, sidewalks, and trees. But local businesses were already struggling to make it.

Although a few plans and visions eventually got approved, from the angry tenor aired in the letters sent to local newspapers, one suspected that meaningful changes wouldn’t be forthcoming.

But change was happening. Although the public forums frequently fought themselves into stalemates over visions and plans, Salidans were coming together and finding funding for countless projects: the Steam Plant Theater, a convention center, local parks and landscapes, a county animal shelter, art fairs, SPARROWS, a theater group, a bigger FIBArk festival, community dances, a community radio station, food and clothing drives, historic preservation, and much more.

IN THESE SMALLER FORUMS, it wasn’t a matter of choosing between hiking trails and rodeo grounds, there were people working for both.

When Americans face problems, they tend to turn to government agencies, or form grass roots movements to lobby government agencies. And that’s all well and good and part of the democratic process. But people seldom recognize how much can be accomplished by small charitable organizations, local businesses and dedicated volunteers.

Today, hard-working citizens are transforming our communities and our country with their conservation efforts, sustainability fairs, free clinics, new economic ideas, and willingness to give their time and attention to others.

Changing our world for the better requires enthusiasm, determination, persistence, and persuasion. Back in the era of Smart Growth awards, I didn’t think it could be done, but I was wrong.