I arrived here suffering from a mild case of Jarvisitis, an epidemic that has spread out of California like some flu of depression.
"In the wake of Proposition 13" is an expression that sounds like the name of a bad summer movie, a "Jaws II." But I too, had read the billboard as a message of conservatism in the country. It seemed that people had put a ceiling not only on taxes, but also on any willingness to make changes, to support public policies that would help others.
As I bumped over (or, rather, between) the Rockies, it occured to me that this was as bad a time to hold a conference on Stress and Families - especially low-income families - as I could imagine. Furthermore, I assumed that the people invited into as rarified an atmosphere as the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies would either be idealistic and therefore impractical, or practical and therefore hopelessly hopeless.
But the mountain air turned out to be good prescription for despair.
The conference was built around the first in-depth study of stress and depression among low-income mothers of pre-school children. It is the sort of study that would usually end up with three paragraphs in Psychology Today and a place in the dusty archives of some Ph.D. library.
But all-woman team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education had done their work - not just to find out what was wrong, but also to find out what could be changed. With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, they studied "43 women and 5,000 variables."
Their data showed how much stress came to poor families from the catastrophic events of their lives and the everyday conditions of poverty. And also, how much stress came from their own encounters with the government programs set up to "help."
Their data didn't include new revelations. But this jaded observer was impressed over the next three days watching three dozen high-powered academics, mental-health people, government bureaucrats and political activists - in the ironically plush atmosphere of Aspen - trying to create the links from research to public policy.
They, are perhaps the rest of us, have had enormous experience in massive social trials and errors. Now they were intent on learning from thesemistakes. In order to help change the lives of people in pain, they knew that they had to change the tactics and methods in their own fields.
The academics, like Harvard's Dr. Deborah Belle, seemed intent on avoiding the one-night-stand kind of research that used the poor as "subjects" and then dropped them.
The sociologists seemed determined to do what Columbia's Amitai Etzioni reminded them: to take the Hippocratic oath: First, do not harm. And the government people from HEW and NIMH were the first to acknowledge how many government programs contributed to the problem instead of the solution.
One mental-health expert, Dr.Thomas Kiresuk of Minnesota, suggested a kind of consumer-protection plan, written into any new social program to protect people from "experts" . . . like himself. Others kept reminding the group that, this time, public policy should be a response to the needs of the people, rather than a program imposed on the poor from above.
The people from Washington were the most conscious that any new social legislation had to be small scale -not an expensive war, but a limited "cost-effective" action.
It seemed that at this lofty "think-tank" in the mountains, people were remarkably, determinedly, down-to-earth. Even Betty Ford, who came to share her experiences with family stress, looking far healthier and more relaxed than a few months ago, didn't talk about her "cure," but about her first steps.
The conference didn't come up with The Solution, just an intriguing list of directions. But I saw people who believe in the value of change and are willing to work hard for limited but real goals.
I wonder if what happened here isn't indicative of something larger - a regrouping by caring, activist people in other places who are also under equally few illusions about the problems of government; who are cautions about master plans to overhaul society, but who still want to help. People who are willing to work within the ceiling of "lowered expectations" and within the structure of "cost-effective" planning.
Maybe I became too optimistic, or maybe the wake of Proposition 13 just hasn't covered the tops of these mountains yet. But the altitude was good for blues.