It's been a strange fortnight even for Aspen. The town's been filled with monks and money, prayer flags and protests, rubber ducks and rugby. Okay, okay, Aspen is always filled with money. Let's face it; money is to Aspen as cheese steaks are to Philadelphia. And privilege is to Aspen as ambition is to Washington.
This is a town where on a short walk, you can pass a make-do production of Antigone at the Aspen Institute with Madeleine Albright pretending to hang herself in front of the King of Thebes. Next, you might see a bunch of young physicists playing a noisy game of volleyball just across from the Music Tent where last week you would have heard Condoleezza Rice giving a Brahms recital. You can slip through the picnicking crowds and head toward the river, wondering through the quiet West End of town where Obama signs are scattered amongst the original Victorian houses. (To be fair, the houses are original on the street side only; the backs have often mushroomed out of all proportion.) After passing by the Aspen Brewery, a new watering hole where the beers have intoxicating names like "Independence Pass Ale", "Conundrum Red Ale" and "10th Mountain Stout" after the U.S. Army's 10th mountain division, you might walk toward John Denver Park where you could see a red-carpeted bridge drawing people into the Art Museum's fundraising event. Then, go on to the Roaring Fork River, past fly fishermen and hikers, and up the hill toward Hunter Creek.
On any given day, you can see Strobe Talbott or Justice Kennedy sitting at Zele Cafe, listening to a group of music students play; or a guy in a Hell's Angels jacket strolling through the Farmer's Market carefully selecting heirloom tomatoes; or a young Prada-Jimmy Choo-and-Fendi-attired woman heading for an opera master class directed by Julliard's Ed Berkeley, in his signature Bermuda shorts which show off his massive mountain-climbing calves. There's popular culture too, and movie stars and 30,000 yellow rubber ducks in sunglasses floating past No Problem Bridge (a fundraiser for youth organizations), and rugby games with the Gentlemen of Aspen, and screenings of Gonzo, and very orderly protests -- all the things that make up the idyllic summer playgrounds of the very privileged. But there's always an undertone in these sorts of places, always a sense of doom teetering just under the gently twisting Aspen leaves, a sense of people running away from something; something they left simmering on the stove back home. But I'm not saying I hate it. In fact, I really, really love it here. When the rest of the country is having conversations about the Olympics or Rielle Hunter, Aspenites are screaming about the rebirth of Russian national aspiration in its most ugly form.
However, there are a few obvious things Aspen doesn't have -- things like shops that sell something you might actually need, affordable housing, and, let's be frank... diversity. There are some Hispanics around, but they mostly live down valley. And, give me a break, the following statistic was printed in the local paper: the town is .44% black. Last winter, comedian Agent Dunn took advantage of this statistic and offered people the chance to meet a real live black person. Fur coats flocked around his booth at the bottom of the gondola:
This summer however, there was more diversity than usual because this summer, His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to Aspen, and along with him loads of Buddhist monks.
"Let me sit more comfortably," the Dalai Lama said, as he untied and removed his shoes, settling into a big comfy chair at his speech in the tent. "Don't worry, I won't just sit cross-legged and meditate and not talk," he giggled. He didn't have a prepared text. "I'm lazy," he explained, adding that he didn't have much time so he didn't like homework. He circled around the audience's questions, at first saying things that seemed almost irrelevant. I thought he'd lost his train of thought and was off on some tangent. Then he'd verbally circle in, spiral-like, to the subject at hand and bring it all together in one final, simple, brilliant point. It was always about compassion.
"Why is the act of compassion so difficult to practice?" someone asked. "I find it easier to show my dog or complete strangers compassion than I do close friends and family."
"Compassion is not feeling pity," he said. "Its one important element is respect and it comes through obtaining inner peace."
I'm not much for sound bites. I don't even like "Yes, we can!" I mean, "Yes, we can... do what?" But when the sound bite boils down to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." These sound bites work.
I'm having a tough time getting there though. This morning a guy at my gym seeing my Obama t-shirt came up to me and gleefully told me he could never vote for him. Why? Because his middle name is Hussein and he doesn't wear a flag pin. Incidentally, the guy happens to raise huge amounts of money for his passionate cause: stem cell research. Compassion is not what I felt.
Today, the last of the monks left and I'll be sad not to catch glimpses of those cherubic faces in their glorious crimson and marigold robes. The final question to His Holiness was how we can fix our cantankerous, argumentative society. He answered by saying we need a sense of global responsibility; that the concept of war is outdated and the notion that religion, race or government separates us is absurd. We need to stop demonizing. "I leave tonight. I leave it to you to create a more harmonious society. I can only share my thoughts. Some people say I'm a living wolf, some say a God king. Both are nonsense. The truth is I'm a simple Buddhist monk."
The Dalai Lama
The Physics Institute
The Music Tent
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