Latest Posts

The Start of a Good Idea

The Moon

The Moon (credit

“The only thing any of us can do completely on our own is to have the start of a good idea.”

The line — an unanticipated gift near the end of the 2018 Michael Lewis book The Fifth Riskis simple on its face yet it captures so much of the spirit that is needed today in America. This look towards collaboration also seems appropriate as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing.

Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space and later the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), heard the “start of a good idea” line once and it stayed with her. The message she took from it was that exchanges of information from “odd groups, outsiders to the program under study,” were how people learn, adapt, and build exciting new tools and programs to serve humankind. Individuals seldom add value when they come into those conversations with strong agendas built on furthering their professional practice, a rigid ideology, or personal greed.

In Lewis’s telling of Sullivan’s work at NOAA, weather forecasters and the scientists at the National Weather Service are among the stars. As gifted a storyteller as exists in America today, Lewis makes the case that the 2016 election brought an ideological worldview to power that did not want to understand the government, the vital services it provides, and the risks inherent in ignoring very serious issues that affect the life, health, and safety of hundreds of millions of Americans and billions of citizens around the world. Things like nuclear weapons and nuclear waste. Food safety. Rural water and sewage plants. Accurate weather forecasting.

All involve the need to work together, as Sullivan suggests, to manage risks, build new tools to address current challenges, and serve humankind.

Willful ignorance and greed play an important role in this worldview that has come into power and brought increased risk into key elements of American life.

“If your ambition is to maximize short-term gain without regard to long-term cost, you are better off not knowing the cost. If you want to preserve your personal immunity to the hard problems, it’s better never to really understand those problems. There is an upside to ignorance, and a downside to knowledge. Knowledge makes life messier. It makes it a bit more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.” (emphasis added)

Many of the tasks government takes on for us are not very sexy and have proven to be of little interest to the private sector that wants to make money, quickly. But, as demonstrated time and again, these tasks need the attention of our best and brightest, working collaboratively to solve critical challenges. Government “steps in where private investment fears to tread, innovates and creates knowledge, (and) assesses extreme long-term risk.” This role conflicts with the worldview of those in power, however. Problems arise out of this conflict, such as when the private sector and its enablers in government begin to believe that “people who wanted a weather forecast should have to pay for it” through a private company.* Lewis asks his readers to consider the audacity of the proposals to move all public weather predictions to the private sector.

“A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on international data-sharing treaties made on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for what the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.”

Lewis believes the rift in American life “that is now coursing through American government isn’t between Democrats and Republicans,” but “between the people who are in it for the mission, and the people who are in it for the money.”

The absolute necessity of our need to nurture and maintain the social compact for a country built on ideas and ideals is among my core beliefs. Yet Lewis is showing, as others have before him, how decisions made for short-term gain are ripping that social compact apart. One of the best works on the topic is George Packer’s 2013 book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. The bottom line of Packer’s compelling work: we’ve left the social compact — the caring for others that once defined America and helped build the world’s most productive middle class — in order to chase individual greed and power. The monied interests and their helpers in government have forgotten about “We the People” and instead have focused on “I, Me, Mine.”

Without a focus on the community, with the involvement of our fellow travelers, the most we’ll ever have individually is the start of a good idea. The government — so long attacked by monied interests who seek short term gain — is the mission of society. Society — that community of “odd” interests — has to work together if our start of a good idea is to grow to fruition.

Have a good week.

More to come…


*The proposal that the government not be allowed to issue weather forecasts was included in a piece of legislation once introduced by then-Senator Rick Santorum on behalf of the Pennsylvania-based AccuWeather company.

American Exceptionalism

The term “American exceptionalism” has been bandied about by politicians, pundits, historians, and others with increasing frequency. Attempting to catch up on the latest atrocities against democracy and the rule of law, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about the term: how it was used throughout history and how it has become weaponized in our divided political culture.

The phrase may have originated in the 1830s with the first great observer of American life, the French political scientist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, but the meaning has changed over time.

Uncle Sam

Uncle Sam makes a stop at the Takoma Park July 4th parade

Some people simply see America as “better” than other countries; that our experiences, products, and lifestyle choices are all “the best.”  Those who take this simplistic approach in claiming American exceptionalism clearly have not seen:

America as “the best” in everything we do is a naïve belief that is easy to debunk. But the concept of American exceptionalism that does require serious consideration is constructed on the idea that we created something new in 1776 out of whole cloth; a “new history” if you will. And moral superiority is a key part of the argument that this new nation, with its unique commitment to freedom and democracy, is exceptional.

Writing about the recent controversy over the use of the term “concentration camps,” journalism professor Peter Beinart touches on the reasoning behind the moral superiority argument.

“Embedded in exceptionalist discourse is the belief that, because America has a special devotion to democracy and freedom, its sins are mostly incidental. The greatest evils humankind has witnessed, in places such as the Nazi death camps, are far removed from anything Americans would ever do. America’s adversaries commit crimes; America merely stumbles on its way to doing the right thing. This distinction means that, in mainstream political discourse, the ugliest terms — fascism, dictatorship, tyranny, terrorism, imperialism, genocide — are generally reserved for phenomena beyond America’s shores.”

But what happens when the same people who push this mantra of American exceptionalism and moral superiority turn away from the fundamental tenants of democracy, decency, and freedom? When they willingly take steps that mirror some of the worst atrocities seen abroad, such as the purposeful destruction of thousands of families? How should we respond when the president’s racist attacks against four U.S. citizens and elected members of Congress are met with silence or — worse yet — support by a significant majority of one of our major political parties? Can the same argument for our unique approach to democracy be made when U.S. law prohibits the intervention of foreign nationals in our elections, yet we see  a presidential campaign accepting such help in the past and indicating it would do so again in the future? That last attack on our democratic framework has an answer from none other than James Madison, the Father of the Constitution. Madison warned against a president who might “pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”

Moral superiority is a hard bar to reach when you have the best of leaders and intentions. It takes someone blinded by ideology to believe the current policies and intentions of our government are a result of our devotion to democracy and freedom or, at worst, a simple stumble along a long arc toward justice.

Much of the weaponizing of the term American exceptionalism comes from those who want a country that is Christian, white, and led by men. This turn from democracy by parts of the religious right and their political supporters is the focus of a sobering Atlantic article. Writer Adam Serwer notes that, 

“Trump is the symptom of the Republican Party’s turn toward illiberalism, not its cause; even before Trump ran for president, some Republican elites were plotting to diminish the political power of minorities and enhance those of white voters. Whatever their disagreements, the leaders of both the populist and establishment wings of the Republican Party have concluded that they cannot be allowed to lose power simply because a majority of American voters do not wish them to wield it.”

If you believe that this is a Trump-only problem, consider the fact that a vacancy on the Supreme Court was held open — in open defiance of the Constitution and the oath that members of the Senate swore upon taking office — for more than a year prior to Trump’s election. Or consider that four members of the Supreme Court, in the recent census question case, were ready to add the question that would limit the count of people of color even knowing that the administration lied about the rationale for its inclusion to the court. But Trump has surely taken us to a level unknown in recent history. 

“The president speaks of imprisoning his political rivals, and his voters cheer. He valorizes political violence, and his followers take note. His attorneys argue both that Congress cannot investigate criminality in the executive branch and that the president has the authority to end criminal investigations into himself or his allies, while ordering them against his opponents. Trump’s supporters exult in the head of state attacking private citizens who demand equal rights, then wave the banner of free speech exclusively in defense of expressions of bigotry.”

It becomes much more difficult to stake a claim to the moral superiority of American exceptionalism based on our love of freedom when a not-insignificant minority of the country, and perhaps even one of its two main political parties, has given up on the basics of freedom and democracy. Rather than make their case with others who disagree under a set of rules that includes public discussion, nonpartisan courts, and — most importantly — a fair ballot box, these groups would cut off free public discourse, stack the courts in their favor, and gerrymander themselves to a permanent majority. It is interesting which groups feel that the ideals of liberal democracy are aligned against them:

“What is notable is that crisis of faith in liberalism for this faction of the religious right comes only now. . . . The state of emergency occurred when, and only when, liberal democracy ceased to guarantee victory in the culture war. The indignity of fighting for one’s rights within a democratic framework is fine for others, but it is beneath them. . . .

Black Americans did not abandon liberal democracy because of slavery, Jim Crow, and the systematic destruction of whatever wealth they managed to accumulate; instead they took up arms in two world wars to defend it. Japanese Americans did not reject liberal democracy because of internment or the racist humiliation of Asian exclusion; they risked life and limb to preserve it. Latinos did not abandon liberal democracy because of “Operation Wetback,” or Proposition 187, or because of a man who won a presidential election on the strength of his hostility toward Latino immigrants. Gay, lesbian, and trans Americans did not abandon liberal democracy over decades of discrimination and abandonment in the face of an epidemic. This is, in part, because doing so would be tantamount to giving the state permission to destroy them, a thought so foreign to these defenders of the supposedly endangered religious right that the possibility has not even occurred to them. But it is also because of a peculiar irony of American history: The American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.” (emphasis added)

Those who demand that only their worldview be enshrined in the ruling culture are like libertarians who have politicized the protests of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.” Serwer notes, “What they describe as a crisis of liberal democracy is really just them not getting exactly what they want when they want it.”

What the religious right and their enablers would prefer, Serwer asserts, is something that looks like democracy but is actually closer to Hungary’s sectarian ethno-nationalism. Rather than battle over the moral exceptionalism of America, I believe those who care about the future of democracy in this country should spend time on things much more constructive and important — such as pushing back against the loss of our democratic norms as seen through rigged electoral systems that ensure that political competition is minimal, a press that is tightly controlled by an alliance between corporations and the state on behalf of the ruling party, rampant racism that seeks to limit who can participate in government, the definition of national identity in religious and ethnic terms, and policing by the state of cultural expressions to ensure compliance with that identity.

Contrary to what the religious right asserts, America was not established based on ethnicity or a religious belief or a common language, but on a set of ideas and ideals that were exceptional for their time and remain so today.  While we struggle to reach those ideals, a significant majority of Americans continues to reject the turn away from democracy and the beliefs of sectarian ethno-nationalism and, instead, want to engage in the “shared work of the imagination” required in our democratic system to build a more perfect union. That work, my friends, is truly exceptional.

More to come…


*I followed the advice of our tour guide in Japan and tried out all the buttons on the modern Japanese toilets.  Oh my!  In one stall, when I opened the door, relaxing music began, complete with sounds of waterfalls. Just incredible.

** Not to mention the good systems in the U.K., Italy, and so many other countries.

***I guess this does prove that we are exceptional in some things.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

(NOTE: I first posted this short review of Daniel Kahneman’s monumental book on how we think and the ways in which our minds work on December 1, 2013, as part of an essay on several recently-completed books. Since then I’ve wanted to link to this specific review on multiple occasions. To make that easier, I’m pulling it out and reposting it here alone. I learn so much every time I open Kahneman’s work. As I said in the initial review, “Just read the book — you’ll thank me for it later.”)

"Thinking, Fast and Slow"

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. In the late summer/early fall, I began this amazing 2011 book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, Fast and Slow takes Kahneman’s groundbreaking research over several decades and brings it together in this tour of how our minds work.

There is so much here to absorb that it is impossible to do this book justice in a couple of paragraphs. Kahneman begins by explaining our two systems for thinking — one fast, highly intuitive, and emotional, and the other slower and more logical. Of course we use the first system for most of our decisions, and Kahneman demonstrates again and again how our unwillingness to push ourselves to the more systematic — but harder — system of thinking drives bad decisions. As just one example, he shows how when faced with a difficult question, we’ll often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.

Yet another section of the book explores “our confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainty of the world we live in. We are prone to overestimate how much we understand about the world and to underestimate the role of chance in events. Overconfidence is fed by the illusory certainty of hindsight.” In example after example and test after test, Kahneman explores this facet of the human condition.

There is so much here to challenge what you think you know. As the New York Times book review said, “It is an astonishingly rich book: lucid, profound, full of intellectual surprises and self-help value. It is consistently entertaining and frequently touching….”

Just read the book – you’ll thank me for it later.

More to come…


To Wander. To Dawdle. To Live.

Wander. Dawdle. Already two of my favorite words, they now seem perfect for a gap year.

The Wandering Mind

The Wandering Mind by Michael Corballis

For years I looked for books to help encourage my desire for a slowing down of the daily rat race. Not surprisingly, I tended to find and read them while on vacation.

One winter holiday, when one usually focuses on resolutions for the new year, I was instead leisurely enjoying a book on the wandering mind. Author Michael C. Corballis wrote, “It seems we are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention, and our minds are designed to wander whether we like it or not.” That sure rings true in my experience.

In The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, Corballis argues that,

“Mind wandering has many constructive and adaptive features — indeed, we probably couldn’t do without it. It includes mental time travel — the wandering back and forth through time, not only to plan our futures based on past experience, but also to generate a continuous sense of who we are. Mind-wandering allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and understanding. Through mind-wandering we invent, tell stories, expand our mental horizons. Mind-wandering underwrites creativity, whether as a Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, or an Einstein imagining himself travelling on a beam of a light.”

There is a creative purpose to wandering, daydreaming, even to boredom. Corballis uses a great deal of recent neurological research to demonstrate that memory — while important to us as humans — is not always what we make of it. He quotes American poet Marie Howe, who said, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.” The mind-wandering that is memory is more like telling a story, and the story that it tells is as often directed to the future as to the past. In other words, creativity.

Can we encourage the benefits of mind-wandering and daydreaming? Well, we can dawdle.

E.B. White once wrote, “The curse of flight is speed. Or, rather, the curse of flight is that no opportunity exists for dawdling.”

I read a good bit of White while on another vacation, near his long-time Brooklin home in Maine. The first dictionary definition of dawdle is “to waste time,” but then options such as “moving slowly and idly” are put forth, as is “languid” and “saunter.” Not surprisingly, I prefer the latter choices. In the Words of E.B. White: Quotations from America’s Most Companionable of Writers, includes gems that give hints of his preference for a life of wandering and dawdling.

  • Never hurry and never worry! (Charlotte’s Web)
  • If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day. (E.B. White: A Biography)
  • I discovered by test that fully ninety per cent of whatever was on my desk at any given moment were IN things. Only ten percent were OUT things — almost too few to warrant a special container. This, in general, must be true of other people’s lives too. It is the reason lives get so cluttered up — so many things (except money) filtering in, so few things (except strength) draining out. (One Man’s Meat)

Comedian Stephen Wright once said, “I was trying to daydream but my mind kept wandering.” This dawdling stuff is harder than you think.

Have a good week.

More to come…


Installment #7 of The Gap Year Chronicles

Making Big Decisions

After running through the woods in the gathering darkness, four young people warily approach an old house. The dialogue begins:

“Let’s hide in the attic.  No, in the basement.” They look around wildly, and one female pleads “Why can’t we just get in the running car?” A male character responds, “Are you crazy? Let’s hide behind the chainsaws.”

The voice-over comes in to say, “If you’re in a horror movie, you make poor decisions. It’s what you do.” After the pitch for saving money with Geico Insurance, there is the scream, “Run for the cemetery!” and all four take off from the garage full of chainsaws to . . . who knows what.  But we’re safe in assuming it will be bad.

I still laugh every time I see this clever commercial.

Right or lefgt

Right or left may not be our only options

Decisions. We all face them. And making big or difficult decisions isn’t easy, even if you’ve never been in a horror movie. But we all see examples of poor decisions leading to disastrous consequences on a daily basis.

When we have to make quick decisions, we usually rely on our fast, highly intuitive, emotional thinking.  Many quick decisions can be handled by following the instincts we’ve honed over time. But they don’t always turn out to be correct, so thankfully there are ways to improve our decision-making on the fly. Learning to recognize and address situations in which we regularly make mistakes is just one example.

It is in the faulty long-term decision where so many of today’s challenges begin, however.

On the personal level, important life decisions require context that emotion and intuition cannot adequately address. When I was in my twenties and deciding where I wanted to work and live, more often than not I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote a list of pros and cons for each major decision, a technique that has lasted through the centuries. I still remember that a key argument against moving to an unnamed city where I had a job offer was the fact that it regularly topped the list of communities with the state’s highest temperature on any given day. That approach was no different than the one taken almost two hundred years ago by Charles Darwin when he was 29 years old and trying to decide if he would stay single or get married.

“Under the heading ‘not marry’ he noted the benefits of remaining a bachelor, including ‘conversation of clever men at clubs’; under ‘marry’ he included ‘children (if it please God)’ and ‘charms of music and female chitchat.’”

Be careful what you commit to paper, unless you don’t mind sounding hopelessly dated (or worse).

The simple “pros and cons” list does not factor in our overconfidence and willingness to accept unsound arguments, if they support a conclusion we believe to be true. That faulty thought process and reliance on bad stories and bad facts has led millions of Americans to make political decisions that are clearly against their best interests. The Michael Lewis 2018 book The Fifth Risk chronicles a number of poor decisions made by people who claim to hate the government because of ideological beliefs, yet couldn’t live without substantial government assistance and the important things that the government does for them behind the scenes on a daily basis. Because knowledge makes life messier, addressing the facts makes it “more difficult for a person who wishes to shrink the world to a worldview.” The more rural the American, “the more dependent he is for his way of life on the U.S. government. And the more rural the American, the more likely he was to have voted for Donald Trump.” This is the same Trump administration that proposes massive cuts to rural development and has imposed tariffs that cost American farmers billions of dollars.

Today we have a growing body of science that helps us consider how best to approach the making of difficult decisions, if we choose to use that information. And that choice is important, because in this age of information overload we can throw up our hands and choose an easy path that may take us in ways we will regret in the years ahead.

We usually have many options to consider in making major decisions, yet we seldom look beyond the obvious. As Daniel Kahneman has written in Thinking, Fast and Slow, it is more important for our brain to have a coherent story in order to ease cognitive processing than it is to look at a range of alternatives that may challenge our basic assumptions. In other words, we are lazy. As a result we don’t look for or absorb things that are outside, or that challenge, our comfort level.

How can we get around this illusion that we know more than we really do? Instead of facing questions as “either/or” decisions, it is helpful to approach them as you would multiple forks in the road. Put several alternatives on the table and work through those scenarios in some detail. Don’t make major decisions alone.  Involve others — preferably who bring different perspectives and cultural contexts to the table — to broaden your insight. I’ve encouraged teams to think not only about good, acceptable, and bad outcomes, but also to engage in a “premortem” where one travels forward in time and looks at why a specific decision was a horrible failure — before ever committing to a single approach. Developed by Dr. Gary Klein, the premortem, in Kahneman’s telling, helps us overcome groupthink (if you are making this decision with others), and it unleashes “the imagination of knowledgeable individuals in a much-needed direction.”

Steven Johnson, author of the forthcoming book Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, quotes Nobel prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, who observed, “One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is to draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” However, if we want to make good decisions, we have to push ourselves to do just that. Finding fresh sightlines from which to view options is a good first start.

Have a great week.

More to come…


Installment #6 of the Gap Year Chronicles

The American Equation

The ORACLE of Takoma Park

The ORACLE of Takoma Park knows all

It was an easy call as to which Washington region July 4th celebration to attend in 2019.

I’ve been writing about the July 4th parade in nearby Takoma Park for the past decade, and each year has featured a different spin on wackiness. In 2012, it was the precision grill team (with signs of cherry pie and the tag line: “You want a piece of this?!”) along with Mitt Romney’s poor dog Seamus, of the famous car top ride to Canada. Elvis made one of his frequent appearances in 2014, as did the Takoma Park Kinetic Sculpture Racing Team. Last  year was a well-received appearance by the Mad Dog PAC featuring their MAGA (Mobsters Are Governing America) float and stickers.

Admittedly, it will be difficult to match the antics of the “Salute to America” — featuring “your favorite president, me!” — on the National Mall this afternoon, but in looking for the real spirit of America, I know I can find an important piece of it here in the region’s only nuclear free zone. We weren’t disappointed.

TP Reel Mower Precision Drill Team

Reel Mower Precision Drill Team

In addition to the Takoma Park Kinetic Kommunity, the fantastic ORACLE (two guys in Swami hats driving cupcakes who would answer any question…you had to be there), and the always popular Panquility Steel Band, we saw a return of the Reel Mower Precision Drill Team, reminding everyone that “reel mowers don’t use gas and pollute the air.” Small pushbacks against climate deniers were scattered throughout the parade.



“Vanadu” is a regular favorite that defies description other than it shows the eccentricity of American ingenuity.

Two of the biggest crowd pleasers in this decidedly progressive town — outside of the hardest working man in politics, local Congressman Jamie Raskin — were the Mad Dog PAC float (a Trump-themed rat) and a guest appearance by the Baby Trump blimp, before he heads to the National Mall for the afternoon events.

Baby Trump

Baby Trump makes a guest appearance on July 4th in Takoma Park

Because it isn’t an election year, we didn’t see quite as many candidates in the parade, but there was still — contrary to the right wing entertainment universe talking points — a diverse group of issues and points of view which were all treated respectfully.  There’s your Seventh Day Adventists Children’s Choir, the Freemasons, the One Leg Up Pet Walkers, the Girl and Boy Scouts, the public works vehicles (love the lawn mower guy spinning around in circles again this year), a variety of public officials from both political parties, the Intergalactic Female Motorcycle Federation, the Green Party, the Silver Spring Yacht Club, and the Takoma Park Lesbians and Gays all mixed together.

When I’m watching the Takoma Park parade each year, I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite essays by Lewis Lapham entitled Who and What Is American?

“The American equation rests on the habit of holding our fellow citizens in thoughtful regard not because they are exceptional (or famous, or beautiful, or rich) but simply because they are our fellow citizens. If we abandon the sense of mutual respect, we abandon the premise as well as the machinery of the American enterprise.

What joins the Americans one to another is not a common nationality, language, race, or ancestry (all of which testify to the burdens of the past) but rather their complicity in a shared work of the imagination. My love of country follows from my love of its freedoms, not from my pride in its fleets or its armies or its gross national product. Construed as a means and not an end, the Constitution stands as the premise for a narrative rather than a plan for an invasion or a monument. The narrative was always plural—not one story but many stories….”

The love of our country follows from the love of its freedoms, not its military might.  The real spirit of America is that complicity in a shared work of the imagination. I’m glad I continue to find it — in all its quirkiness — in a small Maryland community along Maple Avenue.


The Morning Few band

A perennial favorite, “The Morning Few” band

More to come…


Happy Birthday, Lilly

Lilly at Blessing of the Animals

My long-time partner in morning ritual

July 2nd was Lilly’s birthday.

That means nothing to anyone outside the four people in our family, but to us it brings back great memories of our wonderful Sussex Spaniel, Lilly. It has now been ten years since she was last with us, but anytime we gather, her name inevitably comes up.

I’ve told the story before of how Lilly joined our family, after her “show career” was over. When “Stump” — another Sussex Spaniel — won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show, I knew that inevitably I’d be stopped during my morning ritual of walking Lilly by someone who was fascinated to see this breed ambling* along the streets of Silver Spring. Lilly was also a fixture at the annual Blessing of the Animals at the Washington National Cathedral, where her dark coat and “Sussex Smile” would draw attention.

When we said farewell to Lilly, I wrote a long post that included our best Lilly stories. Most show her faithful and gracious side, but she wasn’t always that way. Sussex Spaniels were bred as working dogs, and although she was small she was strong, powerful, and protective of her family. Probably our favorite “Lilly being Lilly” story is the saga of the cleaning ladies.

“Lilly wasn’t always old, and she wasn’t always peaceful with everyone who came to the house…especially our cleaning ladies. I don’t know if it was the vacuum cleaner (which she always hated) or the fact that she felt that Candice was threatened when they were here, but she would bark incessantly when the house was being cleaned. One time she went beyond barking and nipped the ankle of our wonderful cleaning lady. Candice ran upstairs to wake up Andrew (it was summer) to have him translate in Spanish with our cleaning lady who was too distraught to speak in English. He was successful in convincing her not to quit on the spot. When Andrew and Candice tell the story now, they break up laughing at the absurdity of the scene. Afterwards, Lilly was banished to the garage or a locked up room every other Wednesday.”

As Lilly got older, she epitomized the traits that Gene Weingarten captured so beautifully in his book Old Dogs Are the Best Dogs:

“But it is not until a dog gets old that his most important virtues ripen and coalesce. Old dogs can be cloudy-eyed and grouchy, gray of muzzle, graceless of gait, odd of habit, hard of hearing, pimply, wheezy, lazy and lumpy. But to anyone who has ever known an old dog, these flaws are of little consequence. Old dogs are vulnerable. They show exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. They are without artifice. They are funny in new and unexpected ways. But, above all, they seem at peace.”

Andrew recently sent us a video he took from a dog show in London.  He came across a group of Sussex Spaniels, and they immediately bonded as he found just the right places to rub and scratch. The joy in his voice and hands is palpable. And Claire — who was the force behind Lilly coming to our family — became the first among us to bring a new pet into her life. She and her partner recently acquired a Russian Siberian cat they named Chai (short for Tchaikovsky). A cat fits her lifestyle (and apartment regulations) at the moment. It has been great getting our Chai “picture of the day” which brings back memories of delightful pets from all our pasts . . . none more wonderful than our Lilly.

Showing vulnerability, exorbitant gratitude and limitless trust. In her old age, Lilly exhibited those traits every day. We could all do worse.

More to come…


*At that point in time, Lilly was getting old, and ambling was about the best she could do.