A Tale of Two Cities, A Tale of Two Countries

This past week I learned that our city’s high school spent $140,000 on a coffee bar. And that teachers and students alike can order drinks on a mobile phone app, to be delivered to the classroom. I suppose the Carmel students deserve no less.

The very next day I read about the suicides in Madison, Indiana, just a two-hour drive south. According to the New York Times story, captioned “Suicides, Drug Addiction and High School Football,” Madison has been hit especially hard by the opioid crisis. Jefferson County, where Madison is situated, has the highest suicide rate for any Indiana county — a rate that’s more than twice the state average and 3.2 times higher than the national rate.

On the surface, Carmel High School and Madison High School couldn’t be more different. Parents of Carmel students worry whether their sons and daughters will be accepted by Harvard and Stanford Universities; parents of Madison students worry whether they’ll find their sons and daughters hanging from a tree.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course. Not all Carmel students are headed to the Ivy League or other elite university, and not all Madison students are addicted to drugs or headed off to prison or the mortuary. Yet the contrast is real. Stark, in fact.

The Madison story took me back, to the days growing up in one of the poorest counties in Pennsylvania. It’s not that we thought of ourselves as poor. We didn’t, and we weren’t. But we didn’t have a lot. Most of our parents had working-class jobs or were farmers; very few were professionals or had extra cash to spare.  We never took vacations. We didn’t even dream about Ivy League schools — in fact, I don’t think I even knew what the Ivy League was. We didn’t have a lot, but we had enough. Fortunately, one of the things we didn’t have was drugs.

I suppose there were some around, but, honestly, if I had wanted to use drugs, I would have had no idea where I would have gotten them. I didn’t know of anyone who took drugs, much less anyone who was addicted to them. Hell, I barely knew anyone who drank. I suspect it’s different today, even in that secluded, rural county I knew as home. No, I know it’s different today.

I never returned home to live after heading off to college. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how detached I had allowed myself to become to the reality of so many of the kids who were growing up in places like my small rural high school.

I had become a professional and lived in areas populated by professionals and corporate types. That had become my new normal and, unbeknownst to me, I had become blind and oblivious to the transformation that had been taking place all around me. It wasn’t until I was appointed by Governor Rendell to be Secretary of Community and Economic Development that I become aware of the scales that had formed on my eyes.

It was then I traveled to the far reaches of Pennsylvania. To places I hadn’t been in decades. Or had never been. It was then I saw the depth of rural poverty in my native commonwealth — in America. And encountered the plight of the multitudes who had slipped into a life of chemical dependency. I wondered how I could have been so blind.

And now I’m living in a city that delivers lattes to its high school students. While Madison parents are trying to keep their kids out of prisons and graves. And while parents are being bankrupted by the crushing cost of rehab. (See this Wall Street Journal article titled “After Addiction Comes Families’ Second Blow: The Crushing Cost of Rehab.”)

But it’s not only Madison, of course. People are doing drugs everywhere, even in upper-crust Carmel, Indiana. And kids are dying by their own hands everywhere. Perhaps not at the rate that Madison is experiencing. But at an unacceptable rate just the same.

And so I wonder, what is happening to America? What is leading to such widespread drug addiction and abuse? Why is our country’s death rate increasing?

It’s not happening everywhere. In fact, I’m aware of no other developed country that is experiencing an increase in its death rate. America is an outlier. Something is going on here that isn’t happening elsewhere.

I have my own theories as to the root causes of this decay. And you probably have yours. But they’re just theories. They’re not solutions.

Things like this are hard to fix. Very hard. But I worry that we’re not trying. Or that our efforts are feeble at best.

I fear we’re more concerned with our ideologies than solutions. I worry that we simply don’t care about each other enough to try to fix what ails us.

Meanwhile, the contrast between the two cities — between the two realities — becomes more stark by the day. And the casualties mount.

How will it all play out? I don’t know.

What can I do about it? I don’t know. But I know we should be trying. Harder than we are.

What is our future as a country if these trends aren’t reversed? I don’t know.

But it’s hard to think it will be good.

Mission Complete (Almost)

A chief reason we bought the house we did was walkability. My goal was to be able to walk everywhere. I’ve previously written about my late-in-life commitment to walking and hiking. One of my regrets in life is my dependency on the automobile and all the time I’ve spent in one (including long commutes and being stuck in traffic). At your grandmother’s insistence (smart woman!), this time we were going to live someplace that was highly walkable.

Mission accomplished!

We walked to the movie theatre last evening (our first experience at a cinema brewery, where you can have dinner at your seat). Other places walked this past week or so include the grocery store, optometrist, farmer’s market, drug store, restaurants, coffee shop, dentist, library, city park, bakery, insurance agent, ice cream shop, bank, wine store, post office, brew-pub and Monon Trail. I haven’t yet walked, but could walk, to Whole Foods, the doctor’s office and the hospital. In short, I can walk everywhere — well, just about everywhere.

Walking to your house would be a stretch, Vera, although I could get there by bike. And we have walked farther than that before (at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains no less). The only other two places that require pedals or engine are Home Depot (Lowe’s is closer but Home Depot is so much better) and Costco (the only store, other than Wilbur’s in Fort Collins and Hazel’s in Boulder, that I actually like love).

So what’s the big deal?, you might ask. For me (us, really), it’s a big deal for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s a matter of health. It’s not the only exercise I get (Peloton cycle and free weights in my home exercise room being my main indoor exercise activities), but it’s an important one, especially as we get older.

According to the Mayo Clinic (and common sense), walking helps you:

  • Maintain a healthy weight (note above references to ice cream shop, bakery, brew pup and wine store);
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes;
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles;
  • Improve your mood; and
  • Improve your balance and coordination.

I’ve also found that it’s good for one’s mental health, creating some space away from work and other things (sometimes, stressful things) that vie for my attention. To that end, I’ve started leaving my iPhone at home during our walks, something I should have done sooner.

Second, it’s a matter of environmental stewardship. It may be a drop in the bucket, but drops add up. Actually, the miles add up. A car sitting in the garage doesn’t contribute to pollution and global warming.

The downside of walking — at least, outside of a dense urban setting — is that it takes longer. But I now have the time — not always, but usually.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera?

Where I live and how much I walk aren’t really of concern to you or anyone else, I would assume.

The point is this: I’ve learned (albeit slowly) that place matters and where we choose to live matters.

There is no one best place for everyone, of course. And the best place may change, depending on the stage of our lives. The best place for you in your 20s may be very different from the best place when you’re in your 70s.

The best place for some people may be an inner city. For others, it may be a remote mountain town. Or alone in the Plains.

I realize not everyone gets to choose. I get that. Being able to choose is a luxury. I am grateful that I have a choice.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose (and naturally I hope you will be), try not to focus so much on the house or apartment. Rather, focus on the place.

The house is part of it, of course. But it’s not all of it. The surroundings are a big part as well.

And consider what the impact will be on your lifestyle and well-being. And whether it will foster or inhibit the activities that are important to you — whether it complements or detracts from the things you value.

It’s no secret that I’d be living in Colorado if it weren’t for family. But I’m incredibly blessed with family, including you, Vera. So, at this time in my life, the place that’s best for me is here.

I can’t hike or bike the Rockies every day.

But I can walk Carmel.

Endlessly. And with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.