An Empty Bed

We lost our beautiful English Springer Spaniel, Charlotte “Charley,” yesterday.  I know I am lucky to have had her in my life for the past 14 years, but right now it is difficult to get past how much I miss her.  Still, I don’t want to dwell on the end of her life, but rather remember what a sweet, loving, and smart companion she was.

Fair warning, this is going to be a long and somewhat rambling post as I write down some of my favorite memories of our Charley.

Charley was a good-natured dog, but she wasn’t a well-behaved dog.  She jumped for her food, counter-surfed, stole food off people’s plates, rooted through trash cans (spot a theme?), pulled on her leash, etc.

One time, she managed to steal a half-wheel of cornbread off the kitchen island and scarf it down before I even noticed.

Of course, that’s all on me.  I suck at training dogs and she was especially challenging because she was so smart.  Sometimes, she’d pretend to behave, only to turn around and do whatever she wanted when we weren’t looking.

My daughter Isabelle’s room was the only room in the house she was barred from consistently because Isabelle would often leave tasty, and accessible, scraps in her garbage can.  Even after she had become mostly deaf, Charley would somehow know when Isabelle would leave her door open and would very casually saunter over and start digging through the garbage.  We usually only knew she was in there when we would hear an outraged “Charley!” from Isabelle upon returning to her room.

Charley came into our lives after our 11-year-old rescue, Mimi, died of cancer.  I felt I had a limited window of opportunity to get a new dog because once my now ex-wife got used to not having a dog around, she might not want to get one again.  I was searching for dogs when she suggested a Springer Spaniel.  I’d had a Springer, Chaucer, during my teenage years, and spoken of him often, but hadn’t considered getting one due to their heavy shedding.  I immediately found an AKC breeder in Tombstone, Arizona, of all places, with a gorgeous black-white-tri-color female puppy available.  I couldn’t have designed a more adorable Springer.  Within hours I had put down my deposit and reserved her.  I only learned much later how lucky I was.  Most breeders, including this one, pre-sell their puppies and it can take many months to get one.  From some reason, the people who had reserved Charley had backed out and I just happened to hit the website at the perfect time.

A few weeks later I flew to Tucson and drove an hour to Tombstone to get her.  I was greeted by about eight friendly, beautiful, adult Springers and little nine-week-old Charley fearlessly running around with them.  I stuffed her into a pet carrier and headed back to Tucson.  She hated the carrier so I let her out and she promptly fell asleep on the passenger seat.  When we got home, after spending a few minutes checking out her new digs, she curled up on my son’s backpack and fell asleep again, foreshadowing a special relationship to come.  We couldn’t have asked for a more loving, affectionate dog. 

When she was a puppy, she slept in a crate and she would occasionally just go in there by herself (that didn’t last long).  One day, she came out of the crate trailing twenty-dollar bills.  Apparently, she had found a pack of them on a table we didn’t think she could reach.  We joked that we apparently had a dog made of money.

During my divorce, she was my great source of comfort.  I took her for long walks every morning, often before the sun rose.  When I moved out, she came with me.  With only 50% custody of my kids, and then my daughter and later my son going off to college, and Teri moving in just a few years ago, we were each other’s only true constants for 14 years.  It’s hard to contemplate the next 30 or 40 years without her right now.

About a year after she joined our family, we took a two-week volunteer trip to Costa Rica (one of the most meaningful experiences of my life), and we left Charley with my wife’s friend and colleague, Bev.  Up until then, Charley had slept in a dog bed in our bedroom, but Bev allowed her dogs to sleep in her bed and Charley quickly joined them.  Our first night back, she hopped up on our bed and that was that.  After the divorce, she slept in my bed tightly pressed against me.  If I shifted, she shifted with me.  I’d often wake up in the middle of the night in about 12 inches of space at the edge in my king bed, having unconsciously moved away from her looking for some breathing room but with her chasing me across the bed until there was nowhere to go.  I’d then shove her over and we’d start it all again, sometimes repeated several times a night.  A few years ago, she started sleeping in her dog bed again.

Although she was an active girl who loved her backyard, she was also a big couch potato and snuggler extraordinaire, with my son, DJ, as her favorite sleeping companion.  She loved her boy and missed him when he left for college.

Charley warmly welcomed Teri when she came into our lives.  She always greeted her enthusiastically when she came over and, after she moved in, met her at the door every night and sometimes even waited by the door when she was late.  After DJ left for college, Charley chose Teri as her new couch companion.  Her affection for Teri was very endearing.

Charley could be talkative.  She wasn’t a huge barker, but she had a howl that tapered off in a funny way if she wanted to get your attention.  Each summer for several years, we all went to one or two music festivals, and we had dog sitters come by a couple of times a day.  One night I received a frantic text in all caps:  SHE’S HOWLING AT ME!  I had to reassure the sitter that it just meant Charley liked her and wanted her attention (probably hungry).  I still chuckle about it.

A few quick thoughts:

  • She loved my father, who lives in New Jersey.  She was so excited to see him when he came to visit – jumping, twisting, pushing up against him, and furiously wagging her little stub of a tail.  It was always such a delight.  They had a game they played where she would “sneak” into the guest bedroom, snatch a sock and dive under the bed so he would have to get down and retrieve it from her.  Eventually, she grew too big to fit under the bed, so her head, with the sock, would be under, but her butt would stick up in the air, tail wagging.
  • She loved to drink water from the pool, but hated swimming.
  • She loved all the fruit from our backyard trees – mandarins, peaches, but especially avocados – and usually gained a few pounds during avocado season.
  • She was kind of an oaf. She would barge right in to drink at the water bowl and sometimes would jump onto the couch and actually sit on one of the other dogs.
  • At night, she always wanted to be the first to the bedroom, no idea why. When she guessed we were going to bed, she would trot down the hallway.  If one of us was ahead of her, she would speed up to slip by.  If she went too early, she would come back and peek around the corner to see where we were.

While she had been in a slow decline the last few months, she deteriorated rapidly during her last week of life.  On Friday, she didn’t eat her food for the first time, though she did take a few pieces of sliced turkey.  She looked terrible.  Drawn, eyes bulging a bit, unsteady on her feet.  In the afternoon, she wanted to go outside so I let her out into the backyard, but she went straight to the gate leading out to the front of the house, which was unusual.  I followed her out the gate and she wandered down the driveway and started trudging down the street.  Again, unusual.  I let her do as she pleased and she drifted down the street on wobbly legs, looking around a bit, sniffing here and there, but mostly just walking.  Worried about her safety, I turned her around and guided her home.  The thought occurred to me that she just wanted to take a last look around the neighborhood where she had walked many times.  I’m grateful I listened to her, because a few hours later, as she rested in her favorite spot on her mat underneath our entry table, she had the first of several grand mal seizures.  We took her to the ER, but it was time.

She died on this Saturday, a beautiful Southern California Winter day, at home, looking out over her beloved backyard and pool, surrounded by those who loved her and she loved.

Joe and Jill Biden have spoken of “an empty chair at the dinner table” to refer to their son Beau and those we have lost, and continue to lose, during the COVID-19 pandemic.  There is an empty bed in our bedroom now.  A bittersweet reminder of our loss, but also of the wonderful dog who graced our lives with so much joy for 14 years.  We’ll miss her forever.

Today, I’m Proud to be an American

For the past four years, I have been embarrassed to be an American.  Every time Trump tweeted, spoke, issued an executive order, or rolled out another heinous policy, I was not just outraged, I felt humiliated.

On 1/17 on CBS Sunday morning, I watched Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, laugh and clown around with each other.  I was delighted.  Can you imagine Mike and Karen Pence doing the same?  I can’t.

On Tuesday, I watched the Bidens and Harris/Emhoff’s honor the 400,000 people (and counting) who died during the pandemic.  Trump and his ilk have hardly given them a word or, I imagine, a second thought.

On Wednesday, I watched President Biden and Vice-President Harris (no longer “elect”!) take their oaths of office and was mesmerized by the brilliant poet, Amanda Gorman, enthrall everyone with her beautiful, stunning and hopeful poem, The Hill We Climb.

It feels like an eternity since Biden and Harris won the election and, as many others have noted, our democracy has been tested in the past few months like rarely before, but it did endure.  I was struck by a comment from Nathan Law, one of the prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists.  He said that he was encouraged by our largely peaceful transfer of power.  What is so interesting is that while for us this has been the least peaceful transfer of power in living memory, for the rest of the world it was a minor incident.  Oh, the world was shocked that such an event could happen in the United States of America, but violence around elections is nothing new and Trump’s “army of imbeciles,” as Jimmy Kimmel called them, was absolutely nothing to fear.

There is a lot of work to be done.  Again, as many have pointed out, just because the Orange One is gone, does not mean that racial injustice and inequity, moronic conspiracy theories that suck in hapless and disenfranchised people, and a raging pandemic and economic crisis goes with him, but, for a moment, I was able to feel pride in my country again.

Our judiciary did not fail us.  Liberal and conservative judges and justices (even those appointed by Trump) overwhelmingly disgusted by Giuliani and his team of idiots’ laughable legal maneuvers tossed the cases out of court, often with blistering rebukes.

Our legislatures did not fail us.  Yes, far too many of them passed or tried to pass restrictive voting laws before the election, but afterward, none tried to intervene, and both our House and Senate confirmed the election.  Hopefully, those who baselessly attempted to thwart the Constitutionally mandated process will be held to account.

Our election officials did not fail us.  Virtually to a person, those invested with safeguarding our elections throughout the States, did their job honorably and proudly, sometimes in the face of threats to themselves and their families.

Our military did not fail us.  In spite of some missteps, our military leaders resoundingly and proactively rejected any attempt by the lame duck commander-in-chief to use the military against the American people.  There was no “Great Awakening.”  In fact, I am confident that had Trump declared martial law, the military would not have supported him.

Do I paint too rosy a picture?   Perhaps, but I don’t have on blinders.  As Ms. Gorman wrote:

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished…

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

Though our institutions, and our faith in them, were tested, they held firm.  It is particularly interesting that Democratic groups strategized on responses to many election-defying scenarios, many of which came true, but, in the end, the best response tended to be to hold back and allow the Trumpists to fail on their own.   On Wednesday, we proved that though democracy is fragile, ours is still strong enough to hold fast and expose a demagogue who acted tough and convinced far too many people that he cared about them for what he actually is – a weak con man and loser who was only ever out for himself.

I’m confident that, sadly, in spite of a swing away from Trump, many of our fearful legislators will swing quickly back calculating that they need his support to remain in power, but if Georgia’s Senate elections taught us anything, it’s that there is a finite amount of support for crazy and perhaps we have reached its limits.

I’m hopeful we can get back to the values that truly made America one of the greatest nations in the history of the human race, including those emblazoned on Lady Liberty.  Her words should not just apply to immigrants, but also to all disenfranchised people.  Perhaps in the next four years we can figure out how to start to remove hate from our lexicons and see each other just as people, more the same than different, or as Gus says in My Big Fat Greek Wedding,

Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.

Unexpected Trump coup obstacle: Pride in work

It’s easy to gleefully chuckle each time one of Trump’s election-challenging lawsuits (I’m tempted to put that word in quotes) is tossed out of court, often with a scathing opinion, but it’s important to look at why they keep getting so resoundingly rejected.  Just because they lacked any semblance of legal substance does not mean some of them might have had some success.  Sycophants are everywhere, including some in election administration, so why not in the judicial system?  Why did these particular people, many Trump-appointed conservatives, stand up to pressure while so many Republican lawmakers both now and since Trump’s election cow-tow to his bullying?

The answer is a simple and old-fashioned but universal tenant:  people take their jobs seriously and are proud of doing them well.  One can even argue that the sycophants’ behavior supports this theory because they consider it their job to please Trump and want to do that well.

Contrary to Trump’s expectations, conservative judges have struck down dozens of his “elite strike force” of legal clowns’ pathetic lawsuits because they take their jobs seriously.  Regardless of how they might feel about the election, they are sworn to the rule of law and that comes first.  What General Milley said about the military applies here as well:

We are unique among armies, we are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or queen, or tyrant or dictator, we do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or a religion.

We take an oath to the Constitution, and every soldier that is represented in this museum—every sailor, airman, marine, coastguard—each of us protects and defends that document, regardless of personal price.

Republican election officials, even in the face of death threats to themselves and their families, have certified results and stood up to Trump’s pressure because they take their jobs seriously.  Probably the best example of this is Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.  Make no mistake, Mr. Raffensperger is no hero.  He is a fan of voter suppression laws, essentially advocating that it is easier to steal an election before the voting than after.  That being said, he followed the existing law and he took pride in overseeing a successful Georgia election.  He took offense as Trump and his cronies claimed that there was rampant fraud in his election.  Another Georgia election official, Gabriel Sterling, emotionally tore into Trump and others he declared complicit for not speaking out, when describing the threats he and his team have experienced.  Even a man who might have stolen an election by purging hundreds of thousands of people from the voter rolls prior to the election he was both supervising and running in (Stacey Abrams lost by 55,000 votes), Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has not crossed a line in spite of tremendous pressure from Trump.

None of this was because any of these Republicans love Joe Biden or the Democrats.  They are not secret liberals.  In fact, there was little personal or political upside to their actions.  Beyond the threats, elected officials are likely to be brutalized by Trump’s supporters the next time they run for office.  The Trump team simply made a mistake when they made it personal.  When they attacked their competence.  No one wants to be called incompetent and tends to dig in when they are personally attacked.

What’s ironic is that Trump actually knows this.  One of his signature campaign promises is to create more jobs.  He knows people often define themselves by being able to bring home a paycheck.  He knows that people are just as proud of a long hard day in a coal mine as they are in earning millions of dollars on Wall Street.  Regardless, a bully is a blunt instrument.  Trump can only attack and damn the consequences.

Of course, there is another explanation for his post-election circus.  Perhaps he realized months ago he wasn’t going to win the election.  Perhaps he never expected to prevail in court or via other coercive measures.  After all, he has raised over $200M since the election (as of this writing), misleading his followers into thinking they are supporting his bid to overturn the election while the vast majority of the money went to pay off campaign debts, the RNC, and his political action committee and no doubt from there to line his and his children’s pockets.  After all his years of greed and corruption, he has stumbled into the easiest and most lucrative grift of all – milking those with blind faith for all they’re worth.

In a Global Pandemic, Leaders Wear Masks

Like, I’m sure, many of us, I’ve been thinking a great deal about leadership these days.  Good leadership has many attributes – compassion for team members, respect for personal time, delegation, open-mindedness, etc. – but I’m thinking about one aspect specifically – modeling the behavior desired from others.

I’ve long held that there is only one rule necessary to live by, The Golden Rule (and for all you wits out there, no, not “he who has the gold makes the rules”):

We all admire the small business owners, CEOs and Boards of Directors and who have taken significant or full pay cuts and other measures to help pay their employees during the pandemic.  Of course, in many cases it is largely symbolic, but it is still important that they are “walking the talk.”

Nevertheless, in these challenging times, there is another significant issue at stake.  Lives lost due to leadership failure or even gross negligence.

It’s obvious where I’m headed, Donald Trump and his Trumpist cronies.  Full disclosure, I’ve spent countless hours during the past year working to help oust him from office so I cannot claim a lack of bias, but the point I want to make is valid.

One of the Trumpy talking points was best articulated by South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on July 17th:

“I think what we did here in South Dakota is really remarkable because we gave people their freedom,” she said. “We let the businesses stay open, we let people go to work, we told them to be smart, and we also asked them to be personally responsible. And, we’re seeing benefits of that each and every day in South Dakota.”

First, shortly thereafter it became one of the worst hot spots in the U.S. and to this day she continues to be in denial.

Second, conflating a lack of freedom with social responsibility (seat belts, anyone? Or, “No shirt. No shoes. No service.”?), is not only stupid, but dangerous.

Third, her statement implies that Democrats want to take away American’s freedom and don’t trust them to be responsible.

That, frankly, is nonsense (I had another word in mind, but restrained myself).

People follow their leaders.  Democrats (and responsible Republicans), by and large, wore masks, socially distanced and washed their hands more, not because of mandates, stay-at-home orders and restrictions, but because they saw that behavior in their leaders.  Look at what happened when California’s Governor Gavin Newsom attended a dinner party or Denver Mayor Michael Hancock took a flight to visit family for Thanksgiving.  Backlash was swift and unforgiving, by Democrats as well as Republicans.

It is incontrovertible that the coronavirus pandemic has hit the U.S. harder that it should have due to Trumpist leaders eschewing science, denigrating mask wearing and generally downplaying the truth.  In other words, they modeled poor behavior, and those they led followed. 

There is evidence that had a unified national leadership, at all levels – President, Senators, Congresspeople, Governors, and Mayors on down – simply worn masks and followed the science the U.S. would be nowhere near its current 270,000 death tally (as of writing this).  While many countries instituted mandates, others did not and still saw dramatically better death rates because the populace was consistently encouraged to wear masks and did.  It is understood that there are many other factors, including partial lockdowns and other restrictions, that impacted the death rate in countries that did not mandate wearing a mask, and that, culturally, the U.S. would not likely have seen quite the mask adoption levels of other countries.  Even so, had 20%, 30%, 40% more people regularly worn masks, thousands of lives would have been saved.

Not to mention, that had the pandemic been more under control with fewer cases and deaths, the toll on the economy would have been far less.  The two are inextricably linked.

Bottom line:  It’s not about trust or freedom.  It’s about leadership.  People will follow, and model their behavior, on both good and bad leaders.  With something so important as a global pandemic, people can’t afford bad leaders.

Anecdotally, I jog nearly everyday in a nearby park.  Prior to the election, I would estimate roughly 50% of the people there wore masks, though most did their best to socially distance.  Since the election (and the current virus infection surge) and Trump’s fading from public view, I’d estimate that at least 75-80% of people are wearing masks.   Scientific evidence?  Of course not.  However, hopefully, with a new leader taking the spotlight and modeling socially responsible behavior, signs of improvement are already beginning.

VEX Robotics World Competition Promotes the Best of Tech Community Values

This past weekend (4/23-27/2018) The Robotics Education & Competition (REC) Foundation held is annual VEX Robotics World Competition in Louisville, Kentucky.  Thousands of middle school, high school and college students, representing hundreds of the best robotics teams in the world descended on the Kentucky Exposition Center for three days of intense rivalry.  Yes, with teams from over 40 countries, including China, New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and Mexico, this is truly a world competition.  Last year, a team of Syrian refugees was given a warm welcome and tons of support.  This year Puerto Rico was the focus.

Make no mistake about it, the competition was fierce, going well beyond building a great robot, also encompassing sophisticated strategies, social game play and a deep understanding of the game rules so teams can decide how to gain an advantage by bending a rule to the breaking point.  Each match was played with two two-team alliances, assigned for the qualification rounds and then chosen for the remainder of the tournament.  Successful teams know how to work with their alliance partners and ultimately ally with other teams which complement their strengths and weaknesses.

However, all this intensity is saved for the field.  Universally, teams want to beat each other on the field, not off it.  The degree of collaboration off the field is remarkable.  Teams help each other out, trade parts, discuss coding techniques and even post robot designs online.  After the day’s competition, bull sessions go on long into the night.  Gender is irrelevant.  To a person, they are nice, respectful, smart, out to have fun and have zero interest in their parents’ advice.  Adults are there to pick up food, root from the stands and chauffer the teams from hotels to the Expo Center.

I attended with my son’s team for the second time this year and was once again blown away and inspired by these young people setting an awesome example for the rest of us.  If you have children with a STEAM orientation, I highly encourage you to check out VEX.  It has some attributes that make it stand apart from other robotics organizations, including a dedication to creating a level playing field for teams from any socio-economic background.  One of the top teams this year consisted of three first-timers who worked in a barn where they hand-filed components and produced an amazing and beautiful robot.

On top of it all, they put on a well-coordinated, polished and high-spectacle event with incredible production values.  The game MC’s, referees, judges and volunteers are professional, efficient and keep the energy high.  The final event in the Freedom Dome feels like a WWE production, complete with lasers, fire effects, giant screens and pulse-pounding music.  Each and every student is made to feel like a rock star!

I credit Paul Copioli, Karthik Kanagasabapathy and the rest of the VEX Robotics and REC teams for promoting an environment that is not only serious and challenging but also fun and welcoming for all!  Keep up the great work!