Saturday, February 25, 2012

Essay: Crowning a King: On Washington During the Election Season

A bit belated due to poor internet connection, but another of my "professional" writings...

On George Washington, on public service, on campaigns and elections....


Crowning a King: On Washington During the Election Season
By Jana Novak
February 20, 2012 12:31 P.M.

As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, it would be wise to reflect upon politics, civic engagement, and the campaign season upon us. Even more important, we should reflect upon the president this holiday honors.

No matter the candidate or party this year, all seem eager to grasp control, rather than reluctantly take on the mantle of power. This is a far cry from our first president and his attitude toward holding the highest office in the land.

Let us contemplate the father of our country — and why he earned that moniker. Washington never put himself above the goals of the nation. He understood that every action he took, every example he laid out, would be the guiding principle of his day, and of the future. His beliefs held firm, even in the face of the greatest prize: total power.

Americans have a love-hate relationship with power. We differentiate ourselves from others and their dreams of conquest, seeing ourselves not as an “empire upon which the sun never sets,” but instead as a “shining city on the hill.” Washington’s understanding of Americans’ trepidation about power was better than anyone’s.

Consider how we almost crowned a king instead of electing a president. At the end of the War for Independence, the country was in complete chaos. The colonies fought bitterly over how to unite, and the financiers worried about such things as paying soldiers, overwhelming debts, and institutional direction. Our future was a frightening question mark.

Monarchy was the prevailing mode of governance throughout the world, typically providing stability and control — things desperately needed. So the leaders at the time decided that a single, all-powerful ruler — a dictator or king — was required to ensure the nation’s survival.

In the spring of 1782, as the war was ending, Washington received a letter from one of his officers. The letter quite bluntly urged Washington to become king, assuring him of his army’s total loyalty. Washington was stunned. Normally a very diplomatic man, you can hear the horror in his tone as he responds:

With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.

Amazingly, his tone then turns to sorrow and shame: Washington not only could not imagine seizing power, he was worried he had done something to encourage that thought. He continued:

I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.

Rather than calling for royal robes and a crown, Washington said no. Even more important, despite his own dreams of glory, he was horrified that he had somehow inspired the idea in the first place.

Today, most politicians would be calling for the tailor and jeweler: Politicians at every level seem more worried about personal glory than public service. It is not that ambition is wrong or incompatible with a sense of duty to one’s country over one’s self; it is that ambition must be properly channeled and understood.

Many of our Founding Fathers, including Washington, were very ambitious. Yet despite their personal vanities and desires, they ultimately believed foremost in the duty and honor they owed their country, in wielding power for the good of all. Washington was an ordinary man who reluctantly took on the mantle of power to fulfill the need of his nation, and always kept in mind that it was not for his glory, but for his country’s glory. In that, he was extraordinary.

Today, we cannot blame the politicians alone. We are fortunate to live in a free, democratic country, where our voices can be heard. Unfortunately, too many Americans do not bother to be engaged or informed about issues, and do not even bother to vote.

This means the blame for the tone in Washington and the caliber of our politicians lies on us. In countries around the world, people are sacrificing their lives to achieve what past Americans already gifted us. We owe it to those who came before us, to those fighting for “Spring” elsewhere, and to ourselves, to be involved and to lead from home.

So as February marks both the celebration of our first president and the middle of this interminable election season, take the time to study our past, consider what is the best for the nation, and what it really means to be a “leader.” Goodness knows our nation is deeply in need of a George Washington–type leader right now.

— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in national politics, is a freelance writer and author of two books, including Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of our Country (Basic Books).

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hollow & Rilke's Excellent Adventures...

Why yes, that is a shout out to my graduating class of my alma mater -- well, the high school I graduated from that is. (I count two high schools as "alma maters" as I attended boarding school briefly before needing to return home when my mother got ill with cancer the first time.)

Let's just say that for an absolutely excellent reason our "senior theme" was Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Heck, I even wrote one of my college application essays on that movie as the answer to the most profound book / movie / poem, etc that had an impact on me.

Because yes, yes that movie is profound.

But I digress. Again.

I'm here to talk about Rilke and Hollow and their latest adventures -- as there is never a (X&#!*&@$!) dull moment around here.... And I'm not even talking porcupines this time!

There was the evening they took off at top speed when I opened the door for their last of the day potty break around 10:30 at night. And didn't come back.

And didn't come back. Finally, at midnight, with steam coming out of my ears, I decided that I was done waiting up, and they would have to learn the hard way. So I went up to bed.

I had just fallen asleep when the phone rings. I glance at the clock: it's 12:30 am. What the....?!

It's my handyman, who happens to live in the nearest small town to me. And by small town, I mean a population you can count with body digits. This is the same town I referred to in an earlier post where the "Mayor's" response to the Sheriff warning of a a potential road wash out with "Hmmm, well, you'll just airlift in beer, right?"

This town is 0.6 miles from the trail head parking lot to the town sign on the main road. It's 0.25 miles from my house to the trail head parking lot. As I discovered a couple of weeks later, it's at least that far from the town sign to my handyman's house. So this is at minimum a mile away -- up a road where the locals laugh at speed limits.

So I calmly say, "Hi Dave." As really, how else does one behave after midnight when one's loved ones are missing? Dave calmly responds, "You missing your dogs?"

Now, I gotta admit, I was half-tempted to do a "Blue Collar Comedy Tour 'Here's Your Sign'" and respond, "Why no, Timmy's down a well and I sent them after help." But I resisted. Mostly because the steam still hadn't disappeared yet.

Seems my dogs were on his porch at that moment. On a porch over a mile away. On a porch where I didn't even know where it was! As I had never been to my handyman's cabin. Yet my dogs had tracked him, and stopped by to say hi. I'd like to think they were following the parental advice of "if you're lost go find the nearest adult you trust and ask for help".

In reality, I think they were inviting him out to play. Him. Not me.

So I get out of bed (grumble grumble), get dressed (grumble grumble), go downstairs (grumble grumble), grab the car keys (grumble grumble), go out in the cold (grumble grumble), get in the car (grumble grumble), drive to the gate (grumble grumble), get out in the cold (grumble grumble), open the gate (grumble grumble), decide at this hour it doesn't matter and leave it wide open (grumble grumble), and drive up to the town (grumble grumble), realizing as I pass the town sign that I have no idea where my handyman lives and I forgot to ask him (grumble grumble), so I drive to the only stop sign in the town (which happens to say "STOP Hammertime" and so I giggle slightly because I can't help myself every time I see that sign), open my car window (grumble grumble), and whistle and call for the dogs (grumble grumble), who come running down the side street at top speed, with Hollow virtually flying into the car as I pull the door open quickly, and Rilke suddenly remembering he hates cars and starting to do the crab-scuttle away before I grab him, pick him up and throw him in the back seat too (grumble grumble)....

But it appears Dave was not the only one the pups had decided to start paying visits too or hanging out with. As every time I went on a hike or drove out to leave for errands, people starting stopping me and asking me if the dogs were mine. Seems the dogs were introducing themselves all around, and choosing people to go on hikes with regularly. In fact, one woman actually complained that she saw them, and wanted them to accompany her as she cross country skied, and was upset they had taken off to go after some one (or something) else!

The same turned out to be true with one of my other neighbors. I had briefly met him several weeks ago. I had opened the door for the evening walk, they spotted him and his dogs on the trail above us, and immediately headed up to say hi as I scrambled after them. He and his girlfriend live in the house up the road slightly from the trail head parking lot -- so perhaps a half mile all told from my cabin.

I go out of town for a week (more on that later), and upon my return am giving the dogs their evening walk when I run into said neighbor again. We chat and he informs me that the dogs had been showing up on their porch every single night around 10 pm. His girlfriend shows up from work, and chimes in -- oh yeah. Every night! Even came in the house a couple of times when we opened the door. Except this last week -- we didn't see them once for the last week.

Well. It appears my rare social life of visiting friends near the largest city nearby interrupted their regular social life.

~ sigh ~

Speaking of the trip: my friends have an older shiba inu, a really cool adorable looking dog that is actually an ancient breed from Japan bred for hunting. This dog is not particularly sociable with other dogs, and had snapped at Rilke twice (drawing blood) and Hollow once (no contact) on previous trips. But they also had recently adopted a German Shepherd puppy. Tiny, cute, will get huge.

And, I gotta admit, I wondered how Hollow would do. I wondered about the wrong dog.....

Hollow was patient, sweet, and would do a careful snap or two when she finally lost patience. Rilke was mean, vicious, and even managed to draw blood once. Yes, you read that right: Rilke! 

He hated that puppy, and we were constantly having to break them up and separate them. It was nuts. My only thought on this one is that perhaps after being beaten up by the shiba inu the last couple of visits, he was thrilled to pass on the bullying.... Which is awful and sad -- and also really really dumb. This puppy is going to be 150 lbs in a couple of months! In fact, this puppy will be doubled in size the next time we visit! Rilke better damn well hope the puppy is the forgiving type....

But the dogs did seem to love that my friends have a huge yard with a nice high 8 foot fence. So I didn't walk them once, we just left the door open in the basement all day, so that they could come and go as they pleased. They loved this lifestyle. Or so I thought....

We get back to the cabin, and both dogs promptly take off running. Clearly, as before, they had a lot of "peemail" to catch up on. So I don't think twice.

I start to think twice when I discover over the next days that they are no longer listening to me on hikes, no longer staying near me in the least, and no longer even waiting for me for the hikes. Either they are getting back at me for not walking them, or they've lost what little discipline I had instilled in them during our week of "demotivation".

I finally lose it -- ironically on the same evening I ran into the neighbors and learned about their "nightly visits" -- on an evening walk when I get all suited up, open the door, and they take off at a full sprint up the drive. Neither of them even glancing back as I scream after them.

The steam reappears.

I storm up the drive -- well, I go up the drive as forcefully, angrily and fast as is possible when you're talking about a snow-covered hill with a 10 percent grade. At the top of the drive they both reappear with innocent expressions of "Oh cool mom, you're coming too?" I have none of it, grab them both with separate hands and pull them down and flip them over on their backs. I am enforcing "alpha" if it kills me.

Hollow is so freaked out, she pees a little bit. I actually expect this, and so have flipped her away from where I'm kneeling. So she pees half on herself, and half on the snow on her far side. (Meanwhile, Rilke is all teenager, and I swear he is rolling his eyes at me and making faces every time I turn to address Hollow.)

I release them, and we do our hike -- running into the neighbor and his dogs, and I notice Hollow is paying a tiny bit more attention to me.

In fact, in the days since, she has generally stayed closer on hikes, though she is still prone to wandering, and when they both take off at full sprint, there is no getting their attention. (As I discovered the evening walk a few days later when they saw the neighbor getting home as we were heading back to the cabin, and so took off at full speed down the trail, across the parking lot, and across the road -- right in front of a car!!! -- and to the neighbor's house.) But on the whole, she's actually spending a majority of the hikes hanging out in the general vicinity.

Plus, they are no longer going on hour long plus evening potty breaks -- I tell them "short break" as they go out the door, and they've been coming back within a half an hour or so now, with Hollow leading the way.


I've always believed in the 'rule of alpha', and in all the small things you have to do to help establish yourself as alpha (always enter and leave the house before the dogs, holding them on their back till they stop struggling, etc) -- but will also admit these seemed to be having little effect on Hollow. Of course she also seemed to not be fully -- well -- domesticated. So perhaps she is getting a little of that -- and so a little more willing to focus on me.


Even more interesting? Perhaps I don't need those expensive doggy cams any more -- I just need to post an ad in the paper or, even better, on the bulletin board at the trail head parking lot, with photos of the dogs and offering an email address asking for information on their adventures...


Excellent adventures indeed! 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Quills Not Meant for Writing...

I have a lot to catch up on. So first things first. Let's talk about quills.

Not fancy, old-fashioned writing tools -- though those things are damn cool. (Have you ever written with one? There is something so comforting and so "I am creating something important" about the loud scratchiness of quills.)

Oh no. I mean porcupine quills. These lovely things.

And I am sure all of you now realize exactly where I am going with this.

~ sigh ~

Rilke, my smart boy, had one interaction with a porcupine this summer. I was lucky in that he only had maybe 10 quills, mostly in his nose. This meant softer tissue, making it somewhat easier -- but a hell of a lot bloodier -- to get the quills out. But he also learned his lesson, and at the next sighting of a porcupine he most definitely barked his butt off at it -- at a nice safe distance.

This is due to the first fun fact of the day: porcupine quills have slight "ridges" on them (for lack of a better word) that act as little reverse hooks once they have entered something else. That is, they enter the other body easily, but resist being pulled out by "grabbing" as you pull. To be more exact and scientific sounding (thanks to this website):
Quills vary in size from half an inch to 4 inches (1.2 to 10 centimeters) long. Despite their appearance, quills are really specialized hairs. A quill consists of a follicle that attaches to the skin, a shaft with a spongy interior and the notorious barbed tip. If you look closely at the tip, you'll see multiple layers of barbs that cause the quill to embed deeper into a victim's skin after penetration.
Fun fun fun...

Second fun fact of the day: porcupines are the third largest rodent, behind the capybara and the beaver. According to Wikipedia (read more here): Most porcupines are about 25–36 in (63–91 cm) long, with an 8–10 in (20–25 cm) long tail. Weighing between 12–35 lb (5.4–16 kg), they are rounded, large and slow. They are herbivores, and the North American version can climb trees in search of food.

Don't they sound like cute little critters?

And to be honest, they actually are pretty damn cute looking and cool looking. It's just when your dog decides to introduce themselves and forgets basic etiquette about personal space.... Ever met a "close talker"? Well then you understand why porcupines might be a bit offended by a dog's lack of respect for distance in communications, and might shove a few quills down them....

Okay, so porcupines don't do the quill thing "pro-actively". They are not capable of shooting them out or even flinging them at a predator -- or a non-personal-space-respecting creature. They merely are released due to contact (damn close talkers!) or may fall out as the porcupine shakes its booty.... er, body.

So. What does this have to do with me, besides the Rilke "incident" over the summer? It appears Hollow is not quite so smart -- or quite so willing to back down -- or quite so willing to.....

Not. Get. Porcupine. Quills. 

First time: Hollow disappears, as usual, towards the end of our walk, and finally reappears as we get close to the cabin. (My calling "Hollow, Heading home. Heading home, Hollow" might have something to do with that. Might.) I notice several quills in her front legs. Deep sigh.

We get inside, and I have to get to work on a half feral dog (I'm starting to think) that I've had for barely two months, pulling out porcupine quills. My mind flits back to me sitting on Rilke in the kitchen, him screaming, and blood every where. I shake off the image.

Hollow is too big for me to sit on. I try to hold her still with one arm, using that hand to try and hold her jaws shut, while trying to use the other hand to hold the pliers and yank. I move as fast as I can, and get perhaps half of the quills out before she really understands what is happening. Blood starts coming out of a few locations.

Now she's not happy. She shakes her head out of my grip, grabs my cheek as hard as she can while also being gentle enough to not break the skin and pulls my head away from my work. Now I'm not happy. But there are three quills left.

Damn. I rub my bruised cheek, grab hold again, cussing Hollow out the entire time (I would say this would most definitely fit my mother's definition of an appropriate moment), and try again. I get one and two halves. And then I think she might actually kill me.... So we come to an agreement: She will not hurt me, and I will stop.

Yup. With her squirming, two quills broke as I grabbed for them. One in her leg, one in her paw. I've decided Hollow is the Sicilian in this equation, and I give up entirely.

Well. Except I'm a damn stubborn gal. And stupid. Did I mention that? So two hours later, she's sitting in the dining area, after finally having come out from hiding behind the front door. There's dried blood on her foot, and her eyes are wide and looking damn wild. But I can see the quill in her leg. I can see it. And of course that means, I can touch it, right?

And somehow it works: I look in to her wide, wild eyes, not breaking the stare, grab the pliers, and yank. She yelps, gives me a dirty look -- which I actually find reassuring as I was expecting a life-threatening look -- and retreats behind the door again.

Half of one left.

And so it remains. She'll barely let me touch that leg, let alone that paw. I give up.

Second time: We go on a hike, off on a route I hadn't traveled in at least a week. Probably more. I hear barking in front of me from both dogs. Oh..... frick. I rush up the "trail" (this is one of my "make a trail" trails), and find both dogs seeming to "play" with .... something. It takes me a moment to realize what it is, but I'm already yelling "Get away! Get away from it!"

Thankfully, they come running, and I don't want to get too close. I have no idea if it's dead or alive, pissed or what.... As this is what I see:

First Porcupine Sighting
First Porcupine Sighting

Okay, so maybe I'm a wuss, but seriously! Did you look at those quills in the link above? I am so not getting close to a porcupine myself.....

Plus, I just figured out where Hollow got the quills the first time, and am thrilled she has only one in her leg this time that I can grab immediately -- as soon as I finish taking pictures of course!

That evening, I talk to my friends in town about it (they were spending their days skiing), and the husband graciously offers to help me get the remaining quill out of Hollow's foot. I hold her down, he pulls, tada. Though I'll admit I'm a bit jealous that she seems to give him an adoring look the entire time, not a possessed-I-will-kill-you look....

The next day, we go on the same hike, so that this time I can see if the porcupine was indeed dead (as it did strike me as strange that it seemed that Hollow was "playing" with it like a ball or something). This time, Hollow seems to go nowhere near it, and I come upon it, in the same place, as Rilke is trying to "bury" it by digging snow up on to it.

Which is actually rather adorable if you think about it:

Partially buried porcupine
Partially buried porcupine

Needless to say, I finished the job for the poor porcupine, and, especially now, several snow storms later, it is thoroughly buried.

I wiped my hands satisfactorily, and started hiking again, half thinking I should whistle a little tune... The smug feeling lasted exactly 24 hours.

As, if you're keeping track, there's a third time: The next day, on our morning hike, Rilke by my side, Hollow off on her wanderings, I suddenly hear Hollow barking like crazy. Close enough to bloody murder to freak me out. I race down the side of the mountain -- as in, completely off any semblance of a trail, jumping over fallen trees, flying through bushes and brush, screaming the entire time: "I'm coming baby! I'm coming!"

Yeah. Ummmm. Let's just say I'm very glad there are no people who hang out in "no man's land" beyond me -- especially no people with video cameras.

Mostly, because they would have caught me committing bloody murder -- almost. As I get down the hill, after my frantic pell-mell race, and find Hollow has cornered a porcupine. Another one. A live one.

Oh. My. God. I will kill this dog.

The "oh baby, hold on, I'm coming" is now "Are you kidding me?! You X&#!*&@$! dog! Get over here NOW. Away from it!"

~ sigh ~

I spot quills in her nose and her mouth this time. "Are you kidding me?! You X&#!*&@$! dog!"

And I felt sorry for the porcupine:

Porcupine in the willow bush

Close up of porcupine in willow bush

Smile! You're on Candid Camera!

Needless to say, I did not feel sorry for Hollow. I yanked 3 quills out right then and there -- and frankly, hoped they hurt so she would learn the lesson. The remaining quills were in her mouth, sticking out of her lip, and I figured those required pliers. Those would have to wait.

As unlike a smart, handy person and hiker, I not only do not carry something like a "leatherman" on me at all times, I don't even own one. Clearly this must go on my birthday list. Along with the generator and the river pump.

~ sigh ~

I got home, and decided to try the staring contest method again. I got two quills out immediately. The two in the gums on the front of her teeth (!). The remaining mouth ones, which were inside of her mouth, scared me though, so I decided to let her rest and let me rest.

Then I realized it scared me more to leave the quills in.

I started the staring contest again. There were three quills left. I got one and yanked. She stared at me, and her eyes got big and wide. She looked possessed. I panicked, grabbed again, and got another. She yelped. The stare was broken. I panicked even more, frantically grabbed, and the last one broke off in my pliers. Damn.

I gave up. More like she made me.

I kept my eye on it. A dark black pole sticking out of the roof of her mouth. Nothing budged, she wouldn't let me near her, but she didn't seem to be having any problems eating, drinking or having treats.

Eventually, a few days later, I decided I needed to make one last try: mostly because my friends who were in town were leaving that day, and I was about to lose my "help". The wife uses her body to hold Hollow down, I use all my strength to hold her mouth open, the husband tries to wield the pliers. Nada. Hollow is having none of it -- and frankly, neither we were we.

I wash my hands of the whole thing. So I have no idea if the quill eventually fell out or worked its way in further. It was on the roof of her mouth, which as we all know is a particularly bony and tough area, so my guess is it finally just fell out.

All I know is after that last incident, we have had no more interactions with porcupines. And I am pretty damn happy about that.