Saturday, December 19, 2009

Taking Care of the Livestock First

There's an old rule of thumb in farming: take care of the livestock first. Whether it's feeding, tending to, or providing shelter in a storm, seeing to the animals' needs before one's own is no doubt good farming practice, protecting one's investment and livelihood. It's also our responsibility as their caretakers, something we chose when we adopted or acquired them, a decision they had no part of. That responsibility doesn't stop when the animals get old or infirm. Much as we'd like to hold onto them forever--to make time stop--there's a point at which keeping an animal alive becomes more about us and our needs than about them and theirs.

Verlyn Klinkenborg has a piece in the Times today about making the hard decision to put a beloved dog down. It's an eloquent articulation of all that I believe to be the right course in such things, as heart-wrenching as it may be.

• • •

It reminded me of a wonderful story by David Updike, written in 1978 when he was still in college, "Out on the Marsh." It's a reflection by a young man at 21 about the passing of time, illuminated by his sudden awareness that his dog, Mtoti, has gotten on in years. Here's the last paragraph:

I had been out on the marsh for several hours that day, and Mtoti was tired and followed a few feet behind me. I turned to him and ran backwards, clapping my hands, calling his name, and he worked himself into a run. On the lawn we stopped, and I bent down to hug him. In the afternoon light, I could see that the gray flecks on his muzzle had gone to white, and I realized that he had drifted into old age without my having noticed. I have thought of him all these years as my peer, but it is only now, in the blue light of spring, that I realize he has grown old without me.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Getting on the Other Side

Some years ago, a friend of mine was struggling to manage her new horse, a somewhat feisty Argentinian polo pony. It was a challenge for her to overcome her fears and ride the horse with the confidence it required. She rode for a while with a local trainer, a born-and-bred horseman, nearly Midwestern in his approach to horses. He took everything in stride and remained both calm and patient when working with difficult horses.

At one point, when she was frustrated and expressing her doubts, he looked at her and said, “You’ve just got to get on the other side of that horse.”

In addition to being good advice, it’s a great concept. There is, I have found, a tipping point at which nearly every formerly insurmountable problem becomes manageable. Reaching that point requires patience, determination, and a commitment to hang in there until the thing sorts itself out, one way or another.

. . .

I started last summer wondering if Wolfie and I would ever form a workable partnership. He was spooky, I was nervous; not a good recipe for success. But I stayed with it, and rode nearly every day, alone and in company. I rode through spooks and shies, calmed my butterflies, and just kept at it, even on days when I just didn't feel up to it.

By the end of the summer, we had made great strides together: he doesn’t spook at everything now, his spooks are smaller, and I just ride them out and keep on going. No more butterflies. We’re both calmer and our rides are a lot more fun.

I figure I got on the other side of that horse. And I think he probably got on the other side of me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What to Eat

Have been thinking a lot about eating meat, for a few reasons:
  • Saw “Food, Inc.” – movie about where our food comes from. Haven’t had a hamburger since, don’t plan to have another anytime soon.
  • Heard a caller yesterday on NPR’s show about Thanksgiving recipes talk about how she was getting a fresh turkey this year. She said it would be slaughtered today and wondered if there was enough time to brine it before roasting it.
  • An article in the NYTimes by a vegan, talking about not using animals for food or anything else—and then mentioning his cat. Found myself wondering what he feeds his cat.
I am very conflicted about eating animals, and, to a lesser extent, fish. Lots of issues:
  1. Animals do eat each other. And a bear or an alligator or a tiger (if there are any left) might be quite happy to eat me, under the right circumstances. Why not eat them?
  2. We are the only species that raises animals specifically to kill and eat them. There are far too many of us to survive by killing and eating wild animals (especially since we’re obliterating their natural habitats, bit by bit).
  3. We pay other people to kill the animals we eat. And we don't want to know how the sausage is made.
  4. I live with and take care of animals that I couldn’t begin to consider eating, even if I was starving to death. Why are they different than any other animals? Because I know them?
  5. Some people believe that animals are lesser beings, as they lack the ability to reason. Seems to me that they reason just fine: my cats know that if they bug me long enough, I’ll feed them or come up to bed when it’s late. I didn’t train them to do that—they trained me. My horse knows that if he comes when I call him, he’ll get a carrot. I’m not saying that they’re going to understand or develop the theory of relativity, but they understand cause and effect, and certainly know how to cause to get effect.
  6. Animals have very distinct personalities, likes and dislikes, fears and favorites.
  7. Animals can suffer and feel pain, including the pain of separation. They will fight for their lives.
  8. The way we treat the animals we raise for food is horrific and inexcusable. Beyond inhumane.
  9. The way we process meat and poultry products is just plain scary from a health perspective. Ecoli, anyone? Rat droppings? How about the fact that a single hamburger may be made of ground meat from a hundred different cows from different places?
  10. I grew up in Ohio, next door to a farm that raised black angus cattle. And we ate meat or poultry pretty much every night. It's always been a major part of my diet, and I like meat. Or at least I used to. Am not so sure these days.
So, what else would I eat, if I didn’t eat meat? I have a bit of a lactose intolerance, which makes cheese a bit problematic, and it’s not like we treat our dairy cows all that much better than the cows we eat. And soy products aren’t a great solution, either. Soybean agriculture is a main contributor to deforestation in the Amazon, which is bad for man and beast alike. And I read somewhere that people are more likely to get sick from eating imported vegetables than meat, because of the way veggies are grown and processed.

I have thought about raising chickens, just for the eggs. Unlike Tyson, I'd give the chickens a safe place to roost, good food, with plenty of room to roam around. Of course, it would mean eating a lot of eggs, if that was my main source of protein. Not so keen on that.

I have also considered eating only local produce, buying at farmers’ markets from farms I know, canning my own food for the winter, even grinding my own flour. A lot of work and, who knows, I could easily give myself botulism (or worse, if there is anything worse).

I don’t have an answer. All I know is that it's just about Thanksgiving and I don’t feel good about eating meat. Or poultry. Or soybeans.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

In Search of the Quick Fix

I’m continually surprised by how short people’s memories are. Watching the "commentators" on Fox as they opine about (and misrepresent) the economic mess, the health care debate, and the president’s deliberations on sending more troops to Afghanistan, I wonder how it is that a lot of my fellow citizens have come to believe that all of our problems should be resolved—or nearly so—by now, one year into Mr. Obama’s term.

Americans believe in the quick fix. From reality TV shows about transformations seemingly wrought overnight with plastic surgery to commercials from pharmaceutical companies that promise relief from intractable conditions to beauty creams that tout instant results, we’ve become a culture of impatience and false expectations.

If you’ve ever had major surgery—of any kind—you know it’s not a cakewalk. The healing process can be long and quite painful. A friend of mine had shoulder surgery this summer; his doctor told him that it could be up to a year before he’ll be completely pain-free. That's reality.

On a long plane flight this summer, I watched an episode of “Make Me a Supermodel” (yes, I know), in which a beautiful young woman with very bad teeth spent 24 hours getting her teeth fixed—drilling, grinding, implants, the whole thing—and was expected to (and did) walk the runway a few hours later, without complaint or apparent discomfort. That’s just not how it generally goes, as anyone who’s had dental surgery can attest.

It took decades to bring the country to its knees economically and culturally. The girlfriends’ rule of thumb for getting over a bad relationship is that it should take up to as much as half as long as the relationship lasted. With that math, we should not expect to be back on our feet for at least 4 years, if we just count the W/Cheney years. And some of our problems go back a lot farther than that.

The people on all sides who are saying that Mr. Obama “hasn’t done anything” don’t seem to understand that fixing problems of this magnitude—and so many of them at once—is an excruciatingly slow and complex process. And it’s not like he’s the only guy in the room. There are a lot of other people involved: one political party that is mostly engaged in making sure that things stay as they are until the midterm elections, one party that squabbles within itself endlessly about everything, and a whole lot of people in the middle who are looking for a quick and painless fix.

It's going to take time. Some things are still going to get worse before they get better. So, fasten your seat belts. And adjust your expectations accordingly.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Garbage Day

Whenever I take my trash and recycling out to the end of the driveway for the town to pick up, I feel lighter somehow when I get back to the house. That stuff is gone! The kitchen garbage, the stuff that can't be recycled, various things that I am getting rid of that can't go to Goodwill and no one else wants. All sorts of bits and pieces that came into my house one way or another are gone from my house for good. It always feels like progress.

But more and more, I am aware that that is an illusion. The stuff is just gone from here. It's not gone gone. It is somewhere. Maybe it gets incinerated, maybe they just dump it in a landfill somewhere. I've never bothered to find out. I should.

* * * * *

When I am walking or riding along a road or on a beach and see litter that people have discarded along the way, first I wonder who and why, and whether they considered, even for a second, what they were doing when they dumped the stuff there.

Then I wonder if the packaging designer gave any thought to how the package would look, lying on a beach or in the grass by the side of the road.

And then I think about this: imagine that when you die, you are suddenly confronted with all of the trash you generated in your entire lifetime. Not the trash that was generated on your behalf, just the trash that you discarded yourself. Aside from a few collectors' items (your old Barbie Dream House, for example), the stuff is garbage. And it's all yours.

Whether you dumped that six-pack of empties along the road in high school or just tossed the cans in a dumpster somewhere, it all comes back to you in the end. And so there you are, looking at a mountain of everything you ever discarded. (FWIW, recyclers might well have smaller mountains, since the stuff they recycle is reused and won't count against them in the end.)

I haven't figured out what happens next.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

About Passion, II

People who love what they do—for work or pleasure—are a joy to be around. Sure, if you're a landlubber with no interest in boats and you have to spend hours on end with someone who constantly talks about boating, eventually you'd want to run screaming from the room. But the hit you get from a conversation with someone who's totally jazzed is pretty darned wonderful.

One of the things I love about my job is how passionate the people I work with are, from the people at the highest levels of the company to the production editors I argue about commas with, the designers who fuss if something is one point (that's 1/72nd of an inch) out of alignment on a layout, and the sys admins who take care of problems of all sizes and all urgencies, every day.

The people I work with care. They care about punctuation and customer service and sales figures and marketing copy and book bindings and the food we serve at conferences and the new products we develop. I'd wager that there's nothing we do that someone in the company isn't passionate about, one way or another—someone who sees it as their mission to ensure that we do that piece of our business properly and well. (In fact, some of us are rather relentless about it, although I'd like to think that I've mellowed a bit over the years.)

Without that level of engagement, working at O'Reilly would be like working the assembly line at a cannery, all of us passively waiting for the conveyor belt to bring us the next item and the next and the one after that, rarely looking up to see what's coming toward us and never trying to get further upstream, where the decisions are made.

Instead, even after 30 years, the company still feels like a startup in many ways. From my perspective, it's all about passion. And that's what keeps me here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Untidy Life

Here’s the thing: whether it’s working out a knotty design problem on my computer or making a shadow box or trimming the hedge, I use up my energy on the doing. Which means that I rarely have any energy left to adequately clean up after myself. Needless to say, that does not make for a tidy life.

Sometimes I’ll bundle up whatever I’ve been working on and shove it into a drawer or pile it on my worktable, and later regret that I didn’t take the time and care to put things away properly. Or I’ll spend an hour cleaning out and reorganizing my art supplies, but then will come across something that just doesn’t fit into my scheme. If my energy engine has run out of gas, I’ll just toss that outlier in there somewhere, thus compromising my rare attempt to straighten things up.

The worktable in my studio is anything but. It’s actually a work storage table. All of my projects seem to end up there, waiting for me to take the next step. It’s a heap of stuff that ranges from little plastic animals to sand dollars, fabric, hot glue sticks, corks, and frames. I walk by the door, see the disarray and quickly glance away. I work on my dining room table instead; because it’s front and center in my house, I tend to keep it clean. When I’ve exhausted myself making boxes on the dining room table, I gather everything up and—you guessed it—dump it on my worktable upstairs.

I have friends who are total neatniks. Their houses are clutter-free, their workbenches and desks clean and organized, so that when they next go to fix a chair leg or write the next chapter in their novel, they start with a clean slate. In some ways, I envy them. I’d love to have all of my stuff properly organized and put away, with some rational system for finding it when I’m ready to work with it. On the other hand, the amount of time they spend cleaning up is time they aren’t spending making things. I'd rather make things.

Yes, yes, I know—in the long run, the neatniks are probably far more productive than I am. And they probably have fewer self-made disasters, where the pile of stuff on my worktable falls to the floor as I try to add just one more thing to the pile, or when I get hot glue all over my kitchen counter because I just had to put a piece together in the kitchen.

But their work is tighter, too. As beautiful and inspired as it may be, their process feels constrained to me, with nothing unplanned, with little or no opportunity for the happy accident. It’s like skiers who ski a slope with a plan in mind, mapping their course out before starting down, versus those of us who ski in the moment, with the attitude that we’ll handle whatever comes. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t, but there's always the possibility that it will be the best run we ever had.

There are times when I wish I were more like the neatniks and the planners. But mostly not. Much as I'd love to have my house and worktable orderly when I walk in the door, I love the fact that I am never really done with the doing. May it always be so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Birthday Present

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today. Conservatives are either aghast or dismissive: "He hasn't done anything!" That depends on what "doing" something means. He's certainly done what Mr. Bush could never do: use his intellect and diplomacy to earn the respect--albeit in some quarters, the grudging respect--of the international community. The guy is stuck with two wars, an offshore prison full of terrorism suspects, a financial/economic crisis, and political opponents who are arrogant, cynical, and absurdly petty. And he still manages to do his job with grace, humor, and good will. That really drives his detractors nuts; they just can't get to him. He's a class act. And they, by and large, are not.

Hearing about the Nobel award along with a great ride this morning on the Wolfman made for a darned nice birthday. If the Sox manage to win Game 2, that will be the icing on the cake.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The End of an Era

The phrase "statesmanly conduct" came to mind recently, most notably because of the lack of it in the current brouhaha over health care. I looked up the word "statesman" and a few others that seemed relevant:

statesman: a person who exhibits great wisdom and ability in directing the affairs of a government or in dealing with important public issues.

statesmanship: the ability, qualifications, or practice of a statesman; wisdom and skill in the management of public affairs.

respect: to hold in esteem or honor; to show regard or consideration for

It becomes more and more evident to me that the art of statesmanship in the Congress may well have died with Teddy Kennedy. Teddy was not perfect; he was quite fallible and made some very public mistakes. But one thing that characterized his work in the Senate was his statesmanship: he could disagree with someone about an issue, but he was never disrespectful. He might challenge a colleague in debate, but as far as I know, he didn't resort to disparaging their character, their heritage, or their love of this country.

He collaborated, negotiated, cajoled, pushed, pulled, and, above all, he persisted. According to other members of the Senate who spoke after his passing, Teddy didn't sink to the level of open contempt, arrogance, and disrespect that seems to characterize the behavior of many of the people's representatives in Washington these days.

* * *

I looked up a few other words, too:

disrespect: lack of respect; discourtesy; rudeness; to regard or treat without respect; regard or treat with contempt or rudeness

play politics: to engage in political intrigue, take advantage of a political situation or issue, resort to partisan politics, etc.; exploit a political system or political relationships; to deal with people in an opportunistic, manipulative, or devious way

As Bette Davis said in All About Eve, you'd better buckle your seatbelts, folks, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cut the crap, already.

I missed Obama's speech last night, as I was at Fenway Park, watching the Red Sox beat the Orioles. But on the train home, I read the speech in its entirety, and I think it was a damned good speech.

A few things have come to mind over the past couple of weeks:

When the Republicans as a group say no to everything the president proposes, that's not leadership, it's politics. What we need now is leadership. Politics is crap.

When the Democrats dig their heels in so hard that they can't even compromise with other Democratic representatives, people who share some of the same foundational beliefs, that's not leadership. It's a logjam. And it's crap.

Conservatives have become masters at creating pejorative terms for everything they disagree with--"death tax," "death panels," "partial birth abortion." These terms are not only misleading, they're also guaranteed to terrify people who are all too willing to distrust their government (except, of course, their representative in Congress and the pundits who stoke their biggest fears). It's marketing, not policy, and it's very effective. And it's also crap.

Mr. Obama is trying to govern, and is trying to lead--by example--the Congress to behave like rational adults and do their jobs. Do the real work, not the grandstanding, dig-your-heels-in activity that passes for "serving the people." Saying no to everything is not a job, it's a credo. It only serves to maintain the status quo. And it's crap.

Mutual respect and decorum are sorely lacking. In fact, the only person in this whole debate who has been respectful to everyone involved is Mr. Obama. The people who disrupted the town hall meetings, the congressman who yelled out "Liar!" during the speech last night, the snotty and self-righteous pundits--nothing in their behavior comes close to matching the measured dialogue and respectful manner with which Mr. Obama has met his critics and addressed the country.

The guy is a class act. If only the other people involved in this debate could follow his lead and work towards reasonable compromise to solve an incredibly difficult problem. But they don't. And they won't. And that, my friends, is also crap.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Culture of Ignorance

Watching the congressional health care scrum and ensuing “town hall meetings,” I find myself wondering whatever happened to the art of critical thinking. The near-decade of politicians on the right pandering to the lowest common denominator—devaluing intellectuals, rigorous education, and what used to pass for common sense—has created a weird cult-like segment of the population that is easily led by falsehoods and fear.

When people aren’t doing their own thinking, it’s easy to prey on their ignorance of the issues. It’s a piece of cake to get them to see themselves as victims of an enormous and complicated system they don’t and can't understand.

Does anyone really believe that any part of the various proposed health care policies include a “death panel?” And how can people not see that, in effect, that is how our current system works, with insurance companies deciding who gets coverage and treatment and who doesn’t? I watch people ranting on TV and wonder, “Who are these people?” They seem like agitated and terrified creatures from some alternate universe.

Our culture has encouraged people to become passive observers who believe what they are told by people who cast every issue as a binary choice: right or wrong. Our people, it would seem, no longer are taught how to do the real work of independently assessing information, determining by their own investigation and standards what’s true or false, and then acting on it in a rational manner.

Instead, many people appear to have no filters; they drink in what they’re told. They sit back and let ever-more-shrill politicians, zealots, and pundits tell them what they should think, largely based on what they should fear. Fear-mongering is like fast food for the brain: it’s easy to incite and triggers adrenalin, providing an immediate emotional payoff (Kapow!). It is far less exciting to take the time to study, assess, and come to one’s own conclusion about complex, often hard-to-understand issues (Yawn).

When there is true critical thinking, it is difficult to get a group of informed and intelligent people to come to agreement on most issues. How then can the Republicans walk in lock step on nearly every issue? How is it that they manage to represent everything in binary black-and-white/right-and-wrong terms? The answer is that people want assurance and clarity from their leaders. It makes folks feel safe--they know where the boundaries are. The problem is that most issues that our government has to grapple with are not black-and-white, with clearly defined edges, and there are few, if any, set-in-stone yes/no answers. That’s one reason why the Democrats are always in such disarray—between a tradition of independent thinking and a culture of political ambition, it’s pretty hard to get those ducks in a row.

It will take a huge shift to overcome the culture of ignorance we’ve created. I can only hope that Mr. Obama can somehow find a way to overcome the overwhelming resistance to thinking for oneself. And the rest of us might want to consider our role in this, too.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

About Michael Vick

I see that Michael Vick has been "conditionally" reinstated by the NFL, opening the way for him to play pro football again. In today's NY Times:
“I’m a believer personally that if somebody recognizes either mistakes in judgment or things, they can do better going forward, that the general public will recognize that and give people an opportunity to prove themselves,” Goodell said. “I’m trying to give Michael the opportunity to prove himself to play in the N.F.L. again. It’s in his hands now.”
Vick didn't just bankroll a dogfighting ring, he also participated in killing dogs by electrocuting them. It wasn't just a "mistake in judgment," and it wasn't because he was involved with what people are now calling "bad influences." I have not heard one word from him about any reluctance he may have had about maiming and killing the dogs he treated so cruelly. This is not about judgment, it's about character. A guy who intentionally tortures and kills animals for pleasure and/or profit doesn't need to prove himself to play in the NFL. He needs to prove himself to the rest of us.

He's supposedly going to do some work with the Humane Society, which is a step in the right direction, but I'd be far more impressed if he gave up professional football entirely and devoted himself to animal welfare projects. The guy could raise a lot of money that would help abused animals, and would change a lot of people's minds--and hearts--in the process.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Beat Goes On

As I’ve ridden various horses over the past few years, I’ve discovered that every horse has his own rhythm, and that that rhythm can be translated into song. For example, I used to ride a big draft-cross named Kit Kat. When we were trotting around the indoor arena one day, I realized that his trot was exactly the beat and rhythm of “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones. So he’d trot and I’d sing. I tried other songs with him, but Kit Kat's song was “Ruby Tuesday” and nothing else would do.

When I was riding Loki, a wonderful Welsh pony (a horse, really, as he was about 15.2), I discovered that the rhythm of his walk was “California Girls” by the Beach Boys. We had a long walk from the barn to the fields where we rode, and one day I realized that I was hearing “California Girls” in my head as Loki walked along. And so that became his song.

To help keep Wolfie’s rhythm consistent in the indoor this winter and to make sure I was breathing properly, I sang “Row Your Boat” out loud all the time when we were in there alone. (It’s a great song for timing your approach to jumps, among other things.) But it felt generic and never really fit him very well. But a couple of days ago, I was riding Wolfie alone in the outdoor arena, and started singing a Bonnie Raitt song, “Wherever You May Be.” It fits the rhythm of his walk perfectly. Don't know how he feels about it, but I spent the morning outdoors with him today, singing out loud.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson

I remember going over to a friend’s house to watch the premiere of the Thriller video on MTV. I was in grad school in Rochester, and my classmate was one of the only people I knew who had cable. The video was weird, and very cool. We were entranced; none of us had ever seen anything like it. Night of the Living Dead meets MTV.

As his star rose and fell, his appearance, which was perfectly normal when he started out, became increasingly bizarre. From the first nose job, when he emerged looking more like Diana Ross than Diana Ross herself, to the many botched cosmetic surgeries that followed, his outer self seemed to be an accurate representation of the damaged soul within. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to watch him navigate the next 30 years, and how that journey would have manifested itself on his face.

Although I was never a huge fan, there are a few songs that stand out—Beat It, Billie Jean, Man in the Mirror, Ain’t No Sunshine, Human Nature, Black and White, among others. And I will never forget his appearance at Motown’s 25th anniversary celebration in 1984—amazing, wonderful, incredibly hip, completely electrifying. It still is.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Slump

Imagine being David Ortiz. You're in a slump, can't hit the ball, leaving men on base inning after inning. Your struggle is intensely public: sportswriters everywhere are writing your career obit and wondering about past steroid use, and fans are looking grim and sad every time you trudge back to the dugout after yet another out. There's nowhere to hide; you're failing and everyone knows it.

And then, just like in the movies, you start hitting again. Your batting average, which was .143 for the month of May, rises to .308 for the month of June. You hit 5 home runs over 35 at-bats in 3 weeks, a gigantic improvement over May, when you hit your first home run in 149 at-bats. The sportswriters are tentative about declaring the slump over, the fans are ecstatic. And you are nearly the old Big Papi again, at least for now. Although it is an incredible relief to be hitting again, it must also feel like every trip to the plate is putting everything on the line in a very different way than in seasons past.

Nothing and no one lasts forever. Even the indomitable Papelbon is not having 3-and-out innings these days. For Sox fans, it's a reminder of what it was always like to root for the Sox, walking that tightrope between hope and despair. For several years, Big Papi and Papelbon were dead certs. And although it's more anxiety-producing now to watch them both, it's also more interesting, and, when they overcome their difficulties, it's way more thrilling. As cool as it was to watch Papelbon's fastball blow across homeplate, there's now the intrigue and drama of not knowing what will happen. How could anyone not love this game?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Horse Sense"

In today's NY Times, Sean Clancy says this about horses:

"Horses are just like people; there are smart ones, dumb ones, miserable ones, honest ones, simple ones, cheats, freaks, leaders and laggards. They have good days, bad days and plenty of average days. They can be brilliant one minute, horrible the next. They can remember something that happened a year ago and forget what they learned yesterday. They’ll walk placidly into a metal starting gate that clangs and rings when the doors open, and then be scared of a bucket that wasn’t there yesterday."

He nailed it. Wolfie can walk quietly along the side of a road with cars whizzing past (some way too fast and way too close for safety), but if there is a piece of bark on the ground, he'll snort and shy away from it as if it was going to eat him. Their wiring is unique: by spending a lot of time with a horse, you can learn a lot about how he thinks, but you'll never be able to predict with absolute certainty what he'll do in any situation.

* * *

I hope the Belmont goes well today: no injuries, no horses being put down on the track. I don't care who wins; as exciting as a horse race can be, I will wait to watch it until the race is over and I know everyone is alright.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Get this guy some baggy shorts and a metal detector.

Why can't Dick Cheney disappear like a good Veep, and just play golf?

Instead of going on political talk shows to condemn Mr. Obama, and trying to whip up fear and loathing by speaking poison at right-wing venues, why can't the former Vice President use his intelligence and influence to do something positive for the country and the world? He could be working to eliminate world hunger, building houses for the poor, or establishing a foundation that helps third world countries develop green practices and economies.

Failing that, he could just sit down and shut up.

Instead he continues to engage in a battle that no one else is fighting, defending the insanity of the last administration, with Cassandra-like warnings about the terrorist attacks to come. There is little doubt in my mind that there will be terrorist attacks in the future, but they will have far more to do with what Bush/Cheney did than anything else. Undermining the current administration is a self-serving, cynical ploy, right out of the far right's playbook.

If a country's general character and state of mind can be seen in the general character and state of mind of its leaders, the Bush era created a United States that was increasingly paranoid, defensive, suspicious, angry, fearful, petulant, domineering, and, ultimately, weak. And no matter how things went, the future always looked scary and dark. To them, it still does.

If we extend that thought to Obama, the United States is now engaged, open to new ideas, measured, thoughtful, hopeful, articulate (haven't heard anyone say "nu-cu-lar" since Sarah Palin left the stage), and working towards a future that looks brighter—and possible.

Are they doing everything right? Of course not. No one could. But I'd rather be wrong with Obama's approach and policies than "right" with Darth Vader and his loyal sidekick, W. The "force" Star Wars referred to was not the kind of force Dick Cheney has always championed. And he and his ilk (and they are ilk) will never, ever understand that.

Friday, May 29, 2009


I have an on-again, off-again relationship with clarity: I aim for it in most things, but there are times when too much clarity makes me feel claustrophobic, as it forces me to eliminate options that I am not quite ready to discard.

* * *

Many years ago, O’Reilly Media founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly wrote a memo to the company’s managers about our role. One of things he wanted was for managers to “tolerate ambiguity, resolve ambiguity, and create ambiguity.” We all laughed when we read it, but in many ways it has been a key element in the continued success of the company. As the company has matured, we’ve managed to strike a manageable balance between encouraging a certain amount of ambiguity even as we continually strive for something that passes for clarity. It is not always easy to make the necessary choices.

* * *

There are people who would like to eradicate ambiguity entirely; they want to make a list, nail things down, get closure and be done with it. That’s a good way to approach cleaning one’s house: finally decide what to do with that old side table of Aunt Tillie’s that you’ve been tripping over in the basement for years. But it’s not a viable approach for the world that lies beyond your direct control, i.e., most of life.

I have a colleague at O’Reilly who is quite determined in her quest to resolve ambiguity, whether it’s getting clear about roles, goals, or marketing messages. But the thing that makes her unusual—and quite effective—is that her driving desire for clarity doesn’t override her willingness and ability to change course quickly when the situation changes. She doesn’t hang onto what was and try to force the situation back into that state; she lets go and begins from where things are now. And that makes her an excellent problem-solver, because she is always solving the problem as it is now, not as it was a week ago, a day ago, or, far too often, just a few hours ago.

* * *

Ambiguity is a deal-breaker for most horses—they either look to their rider for leadership or they figure they’re on their own. To them, clarity is leadership. It lets them know what’s expected and what’s permissible in any given situation, and makes them feel safe. If you watch horses interact with each other out in the paddock, you see that they have very distinct ways of establishing hierarchies and setting boundaries. This is what “horse whisperers” have learned, and it is how they work what seems to be magic.

I try to be as clear and consistent as I can with Wolfie. Any indecision on my part leads to indecision (and an open door for unwanted behavior) on his. Sometimes it's hard to do. One has to let go of self-doubt and strive for consistency. I can't think: "I must be doing something wrong, since he's not doing what I am asking him to do." The truth is that if I always use the same cues and have the same expectations of him, every time, eventually we'll come to understand each other. Or at least he'll come to understand me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Favorite Food Combos

I was having a root beer today as I was driving through Essex and remembered going to the A&W stand when I was a kid. Root beer and a hot dog with mustard and sweet relish. Yum. Every time I have a root beer, I can almost taste the hot dog. Every time I have a hot dog, I wish I had a root beer to go along with it.

So, of course that got me thinking about food combos that I love.
  • A hot dog with mustard and sweet relish, with root beer. The A&W classic.

  • Tuna fish sandwich on toast, with chocolate milk. Not great for dipping—tuna is kinda oily.

  • Peanut butter and jelly on rye bread, with chocolate milk. Excellent for dipping.

  • Hamburger with mayo and cherry tomatoes on a sesame bun, with a chocolate milkshake (what we call a frappe in these parts).

  • Bologna and chocolate milk powder. Take a slice of bologna and put a teaspoon of Nestle’s Quik on it. Spread it around a bit, then fold the bologna into quarters and enjoy. Gross, but the choc milk powder takes the greasy edge off the bologna—the main thing is to remember not to inhale as you take a bite or you’ll choke to death on the choc milk powder. I came up with this when faced with what seemed like an endless sequence of bologna sandwiches in my lunchbox.

  • Turkey (sliced very thin) with mayo on white bread, with a bottle of Dr. Pepper. In high school, Susie Hertlein and I used to skip out to lunch in Susie's blue Mustang to a place called “Serendipity.” We got these sandwiches and the Dr. P there: the best high school lunch ever. We told our teachers that we were selling ads for the school newspaper.

  • Oreos and milk. I’m not a “taker-aparter”—I put an entire Oreo in my mouth and then have a swig of milk and wait until the Oreo gets soft enough to smoosh with my tongue. Yummy. And only 50 calories per Oreo, but of course I never eat just one.

  • Bananas with sour cream. One of my favorite desserts from my childhood, always with lots of sugar on top.

  • Butter and sugar on white bread. The worst of everything. Depending on how much sugar you use, this can be a very gritty, very sweet treat.

  • Pickled herring and beer. Liked pickled herring even before I spent time in Denmark. Liked it even better when I was old enough to drink beer with it. And Danish schnapps.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Demon Alcohol

So, it seems that I can no longer drink alcohol. Or at least, not much. When I imbibe, headaches ensue frequently enough that I've come to understand that I need to avoid alcohol most of the time. A pity, because it's nearly summer and I love a cold gin and tonic on a hot summer evening.

It's been interesting to watch myself as I reach this conclusion. It's certainly not what I want to do. But the headache response is severe enough that it has made taking the risk and drinking a G&T or a glass of red wine--before I even get the headache--far less enjoyable than it used to be.

I hate things like this that narrow the range of what I can do. Does this really mean that I won't be able to drink alcoholic beverages for the rest of my life? It's not that I'm a big drinker; I'm definitely extremely moderate in that area (I eat way more chocolate and sugar--which may be the next to go, I'm afraid). But I really enjoy a glass of wine now and again, and I already miss everything about it, from the ritual of pulling the cork to admiring the color of the wine in my glass to the smooth finish of a good red wine.

Maybe, just maybe, this too shall pass.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A perfect Saturday afternoon

Sunshine, temps in the 80s. I'm out in my yard, with the windows open and the radio on (speakers facing out as I weed the driveway), listening to the Red Sox play the Yankees at Fenway.

Even better: Varitek hits a grand slam in the 4th.

Friday, April 10, 2009


We’ve all got something—a disease, a condition, an emotional upset, financial difficulties, an ailment of some kind. And we all have our ways of managing that thing that is poisoning our lives, from advanced medical therapies to whining out loud to friends and family (and anyone else who will listen) to just suffering in silence, hoping that things will improve.

When I was younger, when things seemed bleak I used to wish I could just go to sleep for a few months, until whatever was troubling me was past. I remember reading a fairy tale about a princess who went to sleep when she was eight years old and woke up when she was twelve—the first thing she did was run to the piano and play a tune she had learned while she was asleep, when she also developed fluency in several languages. She slept through the entire learning process. If only we could do that (selectively of course, as I love the process of learning new things), so we could get through hard times more easily.

Since I can’t just take a really long nap, I have come to accept these principles for getting through difficult times, no matter the cause of the hardship:
  • Recovery has no set timetable. It takes as much time as it takes. Make no apologies.

  • Even though other people may think that it’s time for you to move on, until you’re ready to or your condition has improved, you can’t. So don’t worry about what other people think (although you might consider taking pity on your closest friends and bring the whining down a bit—it’s hard for them to keep biting their tongues).

  • Try not to let things fester: this goes for infected cuts and old resentments.

  • If there is help available, take advantage of it.

  • If you’ve done everything you can think of to remedy the problem and nothing is working, just stop. Rest. Try to be patient.

  • Sometimes you have to fully surrender to a problem before it can be resolved. That doesn’t mean giving up, it means accepting that what is, is.

  • Get clear on the true definition of the problem. Sometimes you think you’re struggling with one thing then it turns out, when you really examine it, that it’s about something else entirely.

  • Manage the symptoms, treat the disease.

  • Sometimes the answer is “better living through chemistry.” This applies to cancer drugs, antidepressants, HRT, acne lotion, foot fungus powder, and wart remover, among other things. No shame in that.

  • It’s not your fault. No doubt you are doing your best to overcome the problem.

  • Don’t be ashamed. True, someone else might manage the situation more efficiently, more privately, with less sturm und drang. But they’re not walking in your shoes, living your life, managing your demons. No one from the outside can accurately assess and understand what is going on inside you—and besides, it’s really none of their business.

  • Avoid people who are openly unsupportive or critical of the way you’re handling things. They will only make you feel worse about everything, including yourself.

  • You probably can’t think your way out. Most of the time the only way out is through, so do your level best to suck it up and soldier on.

  • And this too shall pass.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mating Season

Woke up this morning to find two dozen turkeys in my driveway. The scene looked like a funky singles bar—the male turkeys were all strutting around, fanning their tails and doing the “Look at me, Turkey Girl” routine, and the female turkeys were ignoring them. The flock strolled slowly down the driveway as they did their mating dance.

It made me laugh, and then I remembered the turkeys that hung around my backyard most of last summer. There was a female turkey and 12 babies. She was an patient, vigilant mother; she kept a close eye on her brood as they wandered around the property, nibbling on bugs they found in the grass. Sometimes she would settle herself on the lawn and rest, with all of the chicks hidden under her wings.

As the weeks went by, there were fewer and fewer chicks; the coyotes had moved in. First there were 12, then 10, then 9, then 6, then 5, then 4, and finally, the last time I saw them, there were just three young turkeys left, wandering in the grass under their mother’s watchful eye.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


I just found out that my former horse, Danny, was put down today. He had not been doing well for the past four or five days, and was found in his stall this morning, bloody and battered and so agitated that he very nearly kicked down his stall door. There was nothing that could be done to relieve his very evident discomfort, and so he was gently helped across the threshold.

. . .

Danny was always a teenage boy in a horse suit. Impetuous, opinionated, mischievious. He saw himself as the king of the barn and expected others to treat him that way, and, by and large, they did. He loved to be the center of attention—he'd nip my arm sometimes if I wasn't paying enough attention to him. People either loved him or wanted nothing to do with him. (My first vet didn’t like him very much. I can’t blame her: he bit her on the thigh the first time she treated him.)

He was always amped up when I rode him. His gaits were nothing to crow about, but he loved to jump, and would sail over oxers, getting more excited with every pass. He never strolled along quietly when we were out on the trails or at the beach. Everyone else would be having a quiet ride, and Danny would be jigging along, excited to be out, demanding to go first. Although he sometimes drove me crazy, he also made me laugh, and he gave me back my love of riding.

In his older years, Danny lived at my friend Ray's barn in Groton, where he became a lesson horse. It was the perfect job for him—he loved people and attention, and the kids loved him. Ray gave him a good home, and was right there with him in his final hours.

. . .

The sweetest memory I have of Danny is on a warm spring day several years ago when I was boarding him in Concord. We’d gone for a ride, and afterwards I turned him out in the paddock. He was standing by the fence, enjoying the warm sunshine, and I stroked his muzzle until he fell asleep.

About Passion

Spent a couple of days at Foo East, an invitation-only event in Cambridge, hosted by O'Reilly Media (my employer) and Microsoft. The companies provided the facilities and the food; the 140+ attendees created the schedule and the sessions, which ranged from discussions on the future of journalism to a compelling demo of a new online information resource to making bath bombs (bath fizzies, essentially), and lots, lots more.

Now, I am not fond of being in the midst of a large group of people. I find it hard to connect with anyone in that atmosphere. I imagine that if the attendees and topics had been more closely related to design, visual art, and literature, I would have found a toehold somewhere. Instead, while everyone else at Foo East was making new connections and talking animatedly about new technologies and potentialities, I found myself reduced to serial "Wow, that's great onion dip" moments. By the end of the second day, I was sitting alone at the edge of the crowd, exhausted, patting a very friendly dog someone had brought along. What a relief!

While I patted the dog, I listened to the conversations around me and watched people interact. What struck me about this group of Very Smart People was not their superior intelligence or some of their "look at me" personal styles. It was their passion, which illuminated everything they turned their attention to. It didn't matter what they were talking about—what was compelling was their absolute belief in and commitment to whatever it was they were championing. They leaned into their conversations, their voices full and confident as they spoke, their expressions rapt as they listened to each other. The huge space was bright with their energy.

Driving home, I thought about the things I'm passionate about. They tend to be private pursuits these days, although I'll argue the merits of the Oxford comma with great intensity, with anyone, anytime.

I was once immensely passionate about everything I did. The flame doesn't burn nearly as bright these days. Not sure if that's a phase or a permanent change. Time will tell.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

Traveling Light(ly)

When packing for a trip, I always try to travel light. I hate to check bags when I fly, so I have perfected packing for a week-long trip in a carry-on bag. Someone once advised me to take half as many clothes and twice as much money as I think I’ll need. Good advice, if you can follow it (harder to do if you’re taking ski clothes and equipment, though).

On the plane last Tuesday, it occurred to me that traveling light is a great metaphor for how to live:

Don’t carry too much baggage. Dress in layers. Be prepared for both good and bad weather. Look ahead, but don’t try to nail down every single detail of your trip. Don’t carry what you don’t need. Be flexible. Bring an extra pair of socks. Take advantage of unexpected opportunities that come your way. Manage unfortunate events. Carry your own bags. Ask for help when you need it. Leave a place in the same (or better) condition than you found it. Sleep when you need to. Learn to read a map. Dance when you feel like it. Ask for directions when you feel hopelessly lost. Eat well. Keep your eyes and ears open. Wear comfortable shoes.

Take your time. Enjoy the journey.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


As they say, gravity isn't just a good idea, it's the law. This week, as I've been vacationing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I've been thinking a lot about gravity. Skiing is all about gravity. Until you learn to trust gravity, you will never ski well. You can't fight it, because you can't win.

Watching people learn to ski is essentially watching them learning to surrender to the physics of the activity. It's not easy to let go of your usual sense of control, especially when you're faced with a steep pitch and fast skis. But let go you must. After all, it's the law.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

There are many choices to make in this life. You can only control your part of those choices—sometimes your part is 50% (relationships), sometimes it’s closer to 100% (say, deciding what to do with your time, assuming you can afford to do what you want—if not, the percentage drops), and other times, it’s completely out of your control and you just have to ride it out (hurricanes, nuclear war).

In many cases, the choice is clear: you know what you should do, and you do it. The “should” comes from somewhere within, from the polestar that seems to live inside each of us. Sometimes the choice we make is not the one we want to make, but it feels like the one we must make.

My polestar may not always know what the right choice is, but it sure as hell knows when I’m headed off-track. At various times in my life, I’ve tried like crazy to resist that knowing, but in the end I have had to give in to it, because more often than not it has been dead-on accurate. I don’t know exactly what the force is, where it comes from, nor why it pulls me with such conviction this way or that at any given time. But pull it does, outlasting all of my resistance until I surrender. I literally trust it with my life.

Even when the right choice is not the one I would prefer, accepting the choice I must make feels solid, like I’m coming home.


Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the dream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a stream…

Thursday, February 5, 2009


I was talking to a friend the other day about the inevitable changes in our appearance as we age. These changes were once very gradual—in my thirties and forties, I noticed the beginnings of a few smallish wrinkles, the slight shifting of mass from here to there, a few strands of gray in my hair. These days, the changes come more quickly, and seem more dramatic. Suddenly I understand that this is the process by which people get old.

In an attempt to come to some peace with the changes looking back at me from the mirror, I’ve been thinking a lot about why it is so hard to just let the process happen. Time and hard use leave their marks, and many of us are desperate to obliterate the evidence: anti-aging is a billion-dollar industry, from plastic surgery to the Olay Regenerist lotion you can find at any CVS.

We’re desperate to look young, to counter sagging skin, wrinkles, and the dreaded middle-aged spread. It has occurred to me that the emphasis our celebrity culture puts on youthful appearance is like admiring fast food. What we’re focused on, as we age, is the packaging.

It is what it is. All of the experiences we’ve had that have engraved themselves on our bodies have also engraved themselves on our souls. Those experiences have deepened and enriched our relationships, our creativity, our work—everything that makes up a life lived. It’s so easy to accept that deeper, inward part of getting older. And such a pity that in our culture we haven’t yet figured out how to see the outward-facing changes as equally beautiful.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


Sometimes it's a hot pizza, fresh from the oven. Or a beautiful, sunny day spent with friends. A warm bath. Hugging someone you care about. Laughter shared with friends. Coming home. Getting off the ski lift at the top of the mountain on a powder-perfect day. Dancing in the kitchen. A crisp, tart apple.

A dog that wags its tail when it sees you. Buttered toast. An old pair of jeans that fit like nothing else you own. A book you can't put down. The previews before the feature movie. A cat in your lap. Root beer popsicles. Coming out of Penn Station onto 7th Avenue. Sitting on the porch during a thunderstorm. Sleeping late. Getting up early. Pinot noir. Stacking firewood. Fresh salad. Getting snowed in. Pinky-red tulips.

Slippers. Flannel sheets. Dinner out. Dinner in. A freshly mowed lawn. Cranberry-orange relish. Smooth stones. Finding $20 in your coat pocket. Dawn. Singing to the radio when you're alone in your car. Fresh linens. A good sharp kitchen knife. Wearing socks in bed. Chickadees. Coleman Valley Road. Cleaning stalls. Hot chocolate.

Longer days. Shorter nights. A freshly mopped kitchen floor. The smell of baking bread. Fancy, imported soap. Fine old furniture. Red foxes. Gin and tonic with lime.

Two eggs, over easy. Warm socks. Leftover birthday cake.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

New Day

It is a season of changes.

Longer days, shorter nights. A new administration, arriving in the midst of chaos, with high ambition and even higher hopes. A layoff and reorg at my day job (which is fast becoming my only job, as resources diminish and my responsibilities increase). Friends in transition from marital harmony to marital discord, and—hopefully--from illness to health.

Change has no intention, it just is. The judgments about change are our own: sometimes we are fearful about what lies ahead, sad at leaving behind things as they were, or confused when we don’t know which decision is the right one to make. On the other hand, change also makes the moon rise and the sun set. It makes our gardens and our children grow. And it brings us all the opportunity to let go of what what was, to make things better in our lives and in the world.

"The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep."

-- Rumi, translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

We all drank the Kool-Aid.

I used to live in a house that was 150 years old. When I moved in, one of the issues was closet space: the closets, such as they were, were tiny. In the middle of the 19th century, working class people didn’t have a lot of clothes. They had clothes for work and clothes for church, and that was it. If they were lucky, they had more than one or two pairs of shoes.

My closet today is huge by those standards, and full of sweaters, slacks, dresses, shoes. I haven’t worn some of those clothes for years. Most days, if I’m not in my riding gear, I wear a pair of my favorite jeans and a t-shirt (summer) or turtleneck (winter). There are a couple of fleece jackets I like to wear on cold days. Most of the other stuff in the closet sits idle, brought out for the occasional wedding, funeral, or night out.

When I go to a shopping mall, I’m amazed at all of the crap people sell that other people buy. Who needs all of this stuff? They say our economy is suffering right now because many of us are cutting way back on our spending. What that really means is that we’re buying only what we need—and most of us already have much more than we need, or want.

How did we all get here, with our houses full of clothes we don’t wear, dishes we don’t use, books we don’t read (or won’t read again), vases, candlesticks, old cassette tapes, mismatched pots and pans, and lots of plastic: bottles, storage containers, bags, toys, unused kitchen utensils, etc.? When you stop to think about it—and look at all that you own, right now—it’s overwhelming. And appalling.

How did we acquire all of this stuff? Why did we want it? Why do we keep it?

(Imagine that we all buy only what we truly need. Could our economy survive? Could we?)