Tag Archives: Aspen


I took Emma whitewater rafting today, while Ariane attended a seminar. Emma asked me to go rafting a few days ago, so I booked it for today and we slathered on the sunscreen. We went rafting last summer, all four of us, with Nic and Emma riding in the front of the raft, getting soaked and laughing like crazy. Nic was attending day camp today, so he didn’t join us. Just me and Em.

I assumed that Emma would want to ride in the front again and asked the guide to accommodate us (and perhaps prevent a meltdown if she was denied her preferred seat selection). The guide said sure, but when we climbed in the raft Emma wanted to ride in the middle instead. I was surprised and a little disheartened to be honest, thinking she had lost her gung-ho enthusiasm.

It was a gorgeous, crystal clear, blue-sky day. The river was running fast with lots of great rapids. Emma sat in the middle of the seat in the middle row. I was behind her to the left, the guide in the stern to her right. In the formerly coveted front row was a mother and father and their daughter Sydney, who looked about three years younger than Emma, but who of course, was talking like she was three years older. They were all laughing and screaming and squealing as they got soaked to the bone in the 40˚ mountain-fed water — acting pretty much like Emma and Nic and Ariane and I did when we rode together last summer.

Emma sat silently for most of the hour long ride, looking around, or maybe not looking around at all. Maybe just staring off in space. It’s hard to tell. I tried to get her more engaged and excited by alerting her to upcoming waves and waterfalls, whooping it up. She seemed to get slightly more jazzed, but not enough to laugh or scream like she would on a carnival ride, or like she did in our last raft ride. I got a little bummed but then I thought about how much Nic’s and Ariane’s company means to her — how much she laughs when we all play together.

“She misses Nic,” I thought. “Misses mommy too.”

It made enough sense that I stopped worrying about her autistic detachment and just enjoyed the ride, which was about as perfect as a raft ride could be. When we hit a calmer stretch, Emma started singing and grabbed the strap they gave her to hold, leaning way back until her head was resting on the seat next to me, whereupon I tickled her chin and elicited those squeals I wanted to hear. This was repeated many more times between the rapids.

I asked, “Are you having a good time Em?”

She replied, “Yeah,” with a smile as convincing as the eager tone of her voice.

“Me too Em,” I said, smiling back at her.

I noticed how much I’d been calling her ‘Em’ lately, instead of Emma. For some reason, the thought popped into my head that Em should be her stage name when she becomes a huge rock star a few miles further downstream. Then I thought ‘M’ would be even better, out-abbreviating Madonna and Cher and other one-named divas — assuring her charismatic status with a single letter. I pictured what the T-shirt ‘M’ logo would look like – maybe a graceful art nouveau scroll – then I got concerned that Bette Midler, ‘The Divine Miss M’ might claim trademark infringement.

SPLASH! My daydreaming came to an abrupt end as I got soaked head-to-toe by a big wave that blasted over the side. Emma sat upright, placid and unconcerned in her self-selected (and very dry) seat in the middle of the boat. “Em, you’re not even wet!” I laughed and the guide laughed too.

“Yeah, looks like she picked the right seat after all,” he added.

Mmm hmm. I guess she did.

Zurcher’s Folly

Yesterday I asked Emma, “Do you want to go to the indoor pool?”

To my surprise she answered, “No.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?” I asked.

She said nothing, which could mean she wanted to or it also might mean she didn’t.  It could go either way.

I needed to be more specific.  “Do you want to go to the cabin?”

“Yes!” She replied.  She ran into the mudroom and grabbed a leash, which she attached to my shorts.  There is a history (as there is with almost everything she does) to the leash.  When she was a toddler, she became absolutely terrified of dogs, all dogs.  We would explain to her that the dogs wouldn’t hurt her and anyway they would be on a leash.  The only way she could be convinced to go on a hike was if she could hold the leash.  Over time that led to putting me on a leash and now it is a given that the dogs run freely, but I am on a leash that Emma holds and occasionally tugs on if I am not going quickly enough or conversely, am going too quickly to force me to slow down.  In any event, it works.

Off to the cabin we went, the dogs racing around fighting over various sticks they found along the way and Emma and I leashed together.

The cabin, one room, no hot water, no electricity, a wood burning stove and fireplace, was nick named “Zurcher’s Folly”.  My immediate family built it log by log and at the time, my father, in particular wondered if it would sit unused.   In the 1970’s the ranch had no houses on it, just fields, shrub, irrigation ditches some beaver dams, herds of elk roamed through each winter, bears and coyote took over in the summer.   The only structures were a barn and the ranch house at the edge of the property where a revolving door of people lived in return for taking care of the irrigation ditches, sometimes boarding horses on the land.

Since the cabin was built various family members have slept in it.  During a brief break between colleges I even lived in it for four months, packing my food and water in, sitting out on the deck looking out onto the Rockies and contemplated life.  The cabin has always held a special place in my heart, a place my family built with their own hands and hard work, a place of solitude, removed from everything else.  Unless an airplane flew overhead one would not know what year it was.  We go out to the cabin at least once every time we come to Aspen.  A pilgrimage of sorts, it is a reminder of what is important in life and what we all love about being in this part of the world.

My two children have been going out to the cabin ever since they were born.  So it was with a certain degree of excitement that Emma and I made our way through the grass and fallen trees before rounding the bend and caught our first glimpse of the cabin’s roof.

Emma immediately began to run.  After I’d unlocked the door, she dropped the leash and fell onto a mouse dung covered platform, which serves as one of two beds.  We stayed there for a few hours, me rereading the journal we keep where everyone who has visited the cabin over the past thirty plus years is encouraged to make an entry, and Emma singing and dancing.

On the way home Emma grabbed the leash once again and tugged on it.

“What?” I asked.

“Go to the indoor pool,” Emma said.

“But it’s too late now, Emma.  We have to go home and get dressed for the picnic we’re going to,” I said.

Emma pretended to cry with an exaggerated facial expression.  Sometimes this leads to Emma actually crying, what begins as a kind of joke can soon turn into the real thing.

I began to sing, “We can’t go to the indoor pool.  We’re going to a picnic.”

Emma picked up where I left off, “I want to go to the indoor pool,” she sang, then looked at me.

“We can’t, we can’t, we can’t,” I sang back.

Then Emma sang, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.”

We went on like this making up verses and melodies, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes stopping mid “verse” until the other picked it up.

“I could hear you two singing all the way up the trail,” Richard said when we eventually returned to the house.

“Wasn’t that great?” I asked.

“She’s doing great, Ariane,” Richard replied.

And he’s right.

She is.


Ariane and Emma were just dancing in the bedroom, no music, just a lot of finger-snapping and hip shaking. She was so cute, laughing like crazy the whole time, rocking back and forth, proud of her new-found finger-snapping ability, looking at Ariane and me with her million megawatt smile. Ariane tried to get her to do ‘the bump’ which made her laugh even more, though she didn’t quite get the hang of it…yet.

I’m sure she’ll be bumping all over the place in a few days.

Emma has been singing all the time lately. I take her for rides around the ranch every morning and late afternoon on a small four-wheel all terrain vehicle. She sings the whole time. She likes it when we drive out into an open meadow behind the barn. I like it too because a family of coyotes lives there. They romp around, looking for mice to chomp on, or sit in the field catching some rays. They are pretty fearless so we can drive right up to them until we’re about twenty feet away. They just lay there blinking, mostly ignoring us.

Unfortunately, Emma mostly ignores them too. I’ll shout out over and over, “Hey Emma, look at the coyotes!” but she barely gives them a glance, preferring to keep warbling while I point and shout. This morning, we went into the field and I saw the coyotes up ahead, so I drove toward them. As I got closer, I saw these little brown fluff balls bouncing up and down, their heads barely visible above the tall grass.

“Look! Marmots!” I shouted, pointing ahead, trying to get Emma to watch as they bounded along the tire tracks I’d made the previous day. Then I realized they weren’t marmots at all, they were coyote cubs, three of them, about a foot long from nose to tail. They were so cute I could barely stand it, hollering at Emma, “Look! Look at the puppies Emma! Look at the coyote pups!”

She looked at them without any reaction, still singing away as they ran up to Ma and Pa coyote. They circled around them, then headed over to a nearby irrigation ditch to lay low while we putt-putted past them. “Emma look! Look at the little puppies! They’re so cute!”

Still no reaction, except for a polite glance in their direction, probably just to appease me or get me to stop yelling so she could sing without any more interference. It bummed me out she didn’t care about the cute little pups. I was so excited I couldn’t wait to get home and tell everyone, but she couldn’t care less. I thought about her autism, how hard it was for her to engage with living beings or her surroundings, and I could feel a little air hiss out of the tire of my joyfulness, my hopes deflating because she’s been doing so well and has been so engaged lately, with Ariane and Nic and me and Paula and even her other young cousins who came over for a super-soaker gunfight the other night.

When I got back and told Paula, moping a little because of Emma’s lack of interest and excitement, she said, “Well you know how Emma is afraid of dogs…maybe she didn’t like seeing them or they scared her.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I thought, looking at the glass half-full. She was nervous, she doesn’t like dogs. Maybe that’s why she didn’t care.

Or maybe she was thinking, “Puppies, schmuppies, they might be cute…but they got nothing on me.”

Dedication to a Rock Star

Ariane arrived in Aspen Saturday with Nic and Emma. I’ve been here for a week already, attending the Literary Festival. Ariane’s mom Paula Zurcher (who I adore!) lives here and we come out about four times a year because we love to see her but also to some extent, because travel anywhere else is too difficult. Emma only eats about nine different food items and she only likes to do physically oriented pleasure activities like swimming and skiing. While I think it’s pretty safe to say that Nic wouldn’t hold up too well on a four hour tour of the Louvre, he would at least enjoy other sightseeing activities and have the thrill of visiting faraway places he’s read about or heard about.

No sightseeing for Emma. Unless the sight is a roller coaster or a water slide, which we fortunately have close by in Glenwood Springs, where Nic and Emma went yesterday. Ariane arrived here in time for the reopening of the newly renovated Paepke Auditorium, named after Ariane’s grandfather Walter Paepke, who founded the Aspen Institute,  Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Design Conference, which is now known as the AIGA – the professional association for design. He was a true visionary, a man who accrued his wealth making cardboard boxes, yet had the audacity to run ads for his company that featured art by Herbert Bayer and sayings by Lao-Tzu  — not one word about boxes.

The auditorium opening was amazing, particulary due to the hugely talented Anna Deveare-Smith who performed a reprise of her impression of Paula and her sister Toni DuBrul having lunch with her, which is profound and poignant and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.  She ends her brilliant performance with a story told to her by the Paepcke daughters.  Elizabeth Paepcke, their mother, planted a young sapling in her backyard.  Afterward she said, “It will be beautiful in 50 years.”  At the time she was in her 70’s and when it was pointed out that she would not be around to witness that she replied, “I know.  But others will.”

Paula and Ariane would never mention any of this family history stuff on this blog, but there is a legacy to be celebrated that is inspirational and it impacts Emma as much, if not more, as any of us.  After all Emma is the great grand-daughter of those two powerhouses.

Claudia Cunningham is a dear friend of ours who has been incredibly supportive to all of us – the children adore her and when she stays with us in New York, it’s pajama party time. She and I always talk about our firm, no intractable belief that Emma is going to be a huge rock star (and maybe already is). We don’t say this in a half-kidding tone. We mean it. Emma is a natural born performer. She loves an audience, she has an incredible pitch-perfect voice, a set of pipes that can blow the doors off a taxi cab, a gift for the grand gesture and the big finish. And she is staggeringly beautiful.

Why not? Why shouldn’t she be a rock star? She was raised on Gwen Stefani. She loves singing and performing more than anything – even a carousel ride or an all day trip to the water park, and that’s saying something. Should we not dream big dreams for her? Are we over-reaching, not being practical, have our heads in the clouds, our feet off the ground? Are we kidding ourselves? Are we in denial?

Hey, if a business man from Chicago can turn his father’s lumber company into The Container Corporation of America and then go on to create the Aspen Institute, why can’t a beautiful, talented eight year old autistic girl grow up to be a rock star?  She certainly has a head start by having the ambition and vision in her genes.

Here’s to you Emma! You are awesome. And when you read this ten years from now in the back of your limo heading to a sold out show at Madison Square Garden you will always know we believed in you – and never settled for anything less than encouraging your dreams and fueling your heart’s desire every step of the way.

Rock on!