Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The New Year

Decades ago my brother’s best friend Rick Read used to spend a good deal of time at our house. Rick spent some time talking with my father, considering what career path he wanted to follow. My father’s advice: “Be useful. If the floor needs to be swept, then pick up a broom and sweep it.”

Be useful. I think that is as good a theme as any for 2014.

Monday, December 30, 2013


One of my favorite parts of the morning commute are the various musicians in the subway stations. I give them any coins and one dollar bills that would otherwise lead me to temptation with the vending machines at work. They give me music.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Stop Right There

No, this is not a piece of medieval armament. It is my new snow hook. It has a line that hooks into the tug line for the dogs. When I need to hitch or untangle, I set the snow hook into the snow and let the dogs lean into the taut line anchored by the hook. Once I'm ready to go, I pull the hook and off we go. Tried it out today and I can now get the team organized in seconds with a whole lot less nagging.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Say It

Free speech means you have the right to voice your opinion. It does not mean that you should not have to suffer the consequences of voicing your opinion. If you are a public figure whose career is dependent on popularity then you may jeopardize that when you exercise your right to free speech. Your choice.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Old wooden dog sled, $200; Strip, repair, re-lash and refinish dog sled, $150 in supplies and many hours of labor; More harnesses and tow lines for the “team”, $140; Watching your team string out beautifully around a hairpin turn at a full gallop on a lovely snowy afternoon, PRICELESS!

To be honest, my plan had been to take the gentle right at the fork rather than the hard left. I knew my meager dog driver skills would be sorely tested getting the sled around that hard left. But I went with their plan, crouched low, kept my weight on the left runner, and tried my damndest to bring that sled around fast enough to stay on the trail. The snow was soft and it did not take long to reorganize after I drove the sled off the trail.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Not a brilliant day...

Not a brilliant day for my "sled team". I could not keep the lead pair fast enough so the dogs behind kept catching up and tangling. Damn near hyperventilated cheering the front dogs on. I think it was a combination of things: unfamiliar trail; deeper snow; spare dog running around as interference; and Levi has become a hard pulling wheel dog so the front dogs had better get moving. So I tried Levi in front. He is useless there. I did get some video though! Used my Gorilla-Pod and glif to attach the iPhone to the sled. If I can get out tomorrow I'll try a familiar trail and not bring a loose dog.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

First Run of the Season

First run of the season this afternoon. I need to take some steel wool to the runners, a bit rusty. I was surprised by the amount of snow today so quick pulled the sled down without much prep. No way I can get a photo once hitched, too busy trying to keep everything under control.

Friday, September 20, 2013

God Bless America

The news is full of people speaking of how their Christian faith shapes their commitment to family and how it shapes their choices for legislation.  “God Bless America” is placed like a stamp of approval on each political agenda.

So who is America?
That strapping healthy guy doing manual labor and driving a big truck is the poster image “American”.  What about the poster boy’s older gay brother?  Is he part of America?  Certainly our returning veterans represent America.  What about the low paid aides taking care of our vets?  These people are working hard to keep clothed and fed on their income, not much room for investing.  They will need the Social Security that they are paying into.  Are they part of America?  What about your neighbor, still unemployed after 6 months.  Is he part of America?  What of the woman with only part time work, living in poverty, who finds herself pregnant, the one many would like to deny access to both birth control and the resources to care for a child?  Is she part of America?  The banker is living the American dream.  What about the family that had their home foreclosed?  They should have known they could not support that mortgage, but then shouldn’t the banker have also known?  Is the defaulting family part of America too?  What about the kid still living at home, unable to find a job that can enable him to support himself fully, and unable to afford health insurance?  Is he an American?  Are the Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Atheist people in this country part of America?  What of the hungry child born into poverty?  Is she American? 
Is America everyone?  Or just the people who are like us, people who don’t make us uncomfortable?  Does America only include people whose lives reinforce our way of seeing the world?
The conservative Christian platform of today is based on values different from those I was brought up with.  I grew up in the Christian church, regularly attending a Presbyterian church in Langhorne, PA.  I went to Sunday school, joined in the youth group, sang in the choir, and attended the classes that led to my confirmation.  I was impressed by the example of Jesus and saw the worth of the Golden Rule.  What I learned in that church was tolerance, respect, making the time to help and care for other people.  I did not learn that gays are evil.  I was taught not to judge.  I did not learn that poor people are indolent.  I was taught to help them.  I did not learn that women are to follow men and bear and care for children.  I was taught to think for myself, to listen to my own conscience.  I did not learn that going to church made me righteous.  I was taught to live by the Golden Rule.  I thank Reverend Crawford for these lessons.  Were it not for this education in the kindness of Christianity I would be left judging the Christian faith by the intolerance, contempt, misogyny, and greed that I see perpetrated and justified by today’s conservative Christians.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Give Thunder Its Due

Give Thunder its due.
The ancients knew
Thunder has its own will,
not an aside, mere detail of the heavens. 

The wind rents the sky
drawing the eye
to cathedrals above,
vaulted chambers of light shifting and alive. 

Naves sculpted of clouds,
arches allow
colored rivers of light,
the sky more beautiful than any stone church. 

Give Thunder its due.
The ancients knew…
Leave sanctuary walls,
breathe the glory of the sky, touch the heavens.
copyright Maria Amodei 2013

August Rest

The glorious days of June and July,
so generous with sunlight.
First light draws you awake to work, then chores.
Driven by opportunity till dark brings you inside
To rest… too late

August wants the brilliant excess,
yet seems somehow kinder.
Dusk sweeping you in the door to rest for tomorrow.
Like a mother puts a child down to nap.

copyright Maria Amodei 2013

Friday, July 19, 2013

Great Expectations

I participated in a conversation about tail carriage in working Border Collies yesterday.  The conversation was about a young dog that was looking very good in his training, but carried his tail high. I was amazed that people were prioritizing the carriage of the tail as much (or more) as the quality of the work.  It seems that many believe the tail is like the needle on a very accurate meter of the dog’s mind set towards the job and stock.  Some handlers, self-described “tail snobs”, like the tail either tucked or tight to the dog’s legs. 

Border Collies carry their tails low when working. High tails generally indicate a dog that is distracted or playing, not settled into the job.  Some Border Collies actually tuck their tail tight to their bellies while working, some have the tail down along the hind legs.  Some carry their tails out a bit from the body, down at a 45 degree angle or steeper.  I’ve noticed that dogs with short, thick tails tend not to tuck them, and most of the extreme tucks are dogs with long, slender tails.  Very stylish workers, slinky and crouched, also seem more likely to have their tails tucked tight.  I have watched a number of very good dogs that do not carry their tails tucked or tight to their legs.  Mostly these are plain dogs in their work.

A dog’s tail carriage is indicative of their mind set, though hardly a precision meter of such.  The dog’s work is a far better indicator of their mind set.  The work is a complex combination of moves and decisions that is not as easy to judge as looking at the tail.  Humans like to have clear cut indicators that allow them to interpret and predict events.  We set expectations on those indicators, and expectations have a way of being fulfilled.  There is a great blog post on this:  How Great Teachers See.  Once we have established an indicator in our head, we quickly recognize all events that reinforce that indicator and subconsciously work to fulfill the expectations.  I had a superstitious friend who felt that bad things happened on Friday the 13th.  Indeed bad things happened on the 13th on any day of the week, and in fact bad things happened around the 13th, the middle of the month.  As the 13th approached she carefully itemized every event that could be considered unfortunate.   Had she been so attentive to finding ways to interpret events as unfortunate at other times she would have seen just as many bad things.  Another generalization is that black sheep are more difficult to manage.   Go to a trial where there are black sheep mixed in a predominantly white flock.  Watch the stock carefully, dropping any bias against black sheep if you can, and listen to handler comments.  Anything that goes wrong on the field will be attributed to the black sheep in the draw.  Folks will groan if they see a black sheep waiting for them at the top.  Yet often I watch and see that the black sheep is not difficult and not a leader.  It is simply following an independent white sheep.    Or the black sheep may seem difficult but what I’m seeing is the dog/handler team mismanaging a situation and then blaming the “difficult” black sheep.  In some flocks the colored sheep tend to be more difficult, but color is hardly the accurate indicator that many handlers believe it to be.

When a dog with who carries his tail a bit high make an error or indiscretion in his work folks will note how that tail carriage surely told them the dog’s mind was not right thus the indiscretion was inevitable.  When a dog with a tail tucked or tight to the legs makes an inappropriate move then it is simply an indiscretion.  When people dislike a dog for any reason, whether it be tail or work style or color or blood lines, they will remember everything that went wrong on the field and attribute the problems to the dog itself rather than handling or stock.

Sheep don’t look at the tail.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

She Delivers

Song was a very consistent performer this past weekend.  She got 2 second place finishes and a 5th.  Both double gathers were strong and all runs were good.  As people watched her I had a couple folks admit that they had never thought much of Song, but were beginning to be impressed by her results.  Indeed this is not the first time that folks have indicated that Song is not a particularly good dog, and at times I have mistakenly bought into this.  Song has almost no eye, little style, not much pace, and no presence.  Yet Song moved to open 4 months after her second birthday and placed immediately on a large course with balky sheep.  She has qualified for the National Finals multiple times, and won trials.  She seldom has a disastrous run, and often has very good runs.  What is it that makes this dog good, despite her limitations?

Song delivers.  She is always in the hunt.  She does not get flustered by new fields, new sheep, strong pressure, or any other challenges.  There are dogs that won't come forward on stock they are uncomfortable with, and dogs that won't stop on stock they are uncomfortable with.  There are dogs that may run ridiculously wide, never turning to look in for their sheep.  Spend time in the handlers tent and you will hear constant reasons why a dog either stopped working, stopped responding to commands, or did some strange and unproductive move on the trial field.  Often the dogs "can't hear" just a couple hundred feet from the handler's post.

Song delivers.  She delights in solving new problems, keeps her mind engaged and focused, has the confidence to take my commands even in difficult situations.  She hears me where other dogs "can't hear".  Song comes forward on slow stock and can be held back on light stock.  She starts her outrun with the intention of finding the stock and getting behind them, always looking in.  She is confident in her abilities and eager to partner with me even when the going gets rough.  She has almost no eye, little style, not much pace, and no presence.  Yet she has the game and flexible mind that allows her to get the job done more often than not, and get it done well. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Smooth Operator

Two years ago at this time I had three puppies, all within a few weeks of the same age.  Foolhardy.  I was smitten with Ruth, an adorable and brazen youngster.  Her bloodlines were producing consistently well and she was full of promise.  I had Cass, a young pup of my breeding, very handler soft but bold on her stock and thoughtful.  Then there was Marcus, the little prince, sired by my Levi and looking quite nice. 

As they grew I became more and more enamored of Ruth, but she was not clear headed.  On stock she glazed over and had trouble thinking and working with me.  She was also difficult in the pack, relentlessly working other dogs, or digging when she had no one to work.  Ruth went to be a goose dog.  Meanwhile Cass was looking fabulous.  Cass has a lovely way behind stock, bold as brass and oh so eager to please.  Cass was my new wonder-pup.  But Cass is very sensitive, making it hard to train her without teaching her to do nothing at all.  We make progress together slowly, Cass and I. 

Through all this Marcus looked good enough.  He can be a stubborn little guy, lost in the work and often really can't believe I'm foolish enough to want him to go left when right is right.  He tends to want to run wide and is not as sure of his stock as Cass.  He's a little dog.  I call him Mighty Mouse as when he races out on an outrun you can almost see his fist in the air, wide collar looking like a cape.  Marcus has yet to truly grasp driving as a concept, not being happy pushing stock away from me.  We continue to work on these problems, and the wall flower Marcus is stepping onto center stage. 

What is it about Marcus that is so appealing?  He is smooth.  Really smooth.  He transitions from flank to walkup, from fast to slow to stop to fast, all done with no notice of the change.  I used him for setout in May and had a chance to really watch him work on his own.  He'd slide in between the setout pen and the just released stock like a snake slithering along a garden wall.  Quick without being abrupt, no space taken, just there.  When he stops he settles to the ground in a smooth and quiet motion.  When he gets up it is the same in reverse.  He turns off a direct walkup into a flank with no discernible change to his frame or cadence, now he is walking up, now he is flanking.  You do not notice the transition.  Every movement he makes is calculated on its effect on the sheep.  In this way he keeps his sheep quietly directed.  Despite having a bit of edge, Marcus can settle stock.  He can clearly redirect sheep without any perceptible change in their pace or demeanor. 

I still have both Cass and Marcus.  Both are just over 2 years of age.  For now both are staying here so I'll get to see how they continue to improve.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Summer Music

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto just came on my iPod.  Coupled with the lush scents of summer air it brings to mind a concert I attended in the early 80s.  There was a guest pianist playing with the Philadelphia Philharmonic orchestra at their outdoor venue.  The pianist rendered this powerful and emotional music superbly.  The music swept up the hillside, both filling and carried by the summer air. As she graciously stood to accept the standing ovation I noted the pale yellow princess line dress, like a young girl would wear.  She then expertly played a more lighthearted encore.  The next day I read the paper and saw that the pianist was a 13 year old girl.  A child possessed such depth of life and focus and beauty to take us all on the journey through this music on that summer night.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


I took an English writing course taught by Professor Brancaccio my first semester at Colby College. I think I managed to drag my grade up to a C with innumerable rewrites of each paper before handing it in. That one course had more impact on my life than any number of other courses I took. By the end of the semester I knew what good writing looked like, could find and identify faults, and see where the reader would not follow. From that point if any class I took depended on a paper for the grade I got an A. It was not easy in the early days, first drafts were utter garbage. It took me 10 rewrites to get my thoughts formed and another 20 to polish my work, all done with a pen and pad of paper.

I remembered that course today while working on a poem. My skills are in prose so the poetry is challenging me. Professor Brancaccio did not teach me how to write rather he showed me the destination of my efforts. Once I knew where I was going, I was able to chip away at each paper until it became the piece I wanted. I am not gifted. I am skilled.

Life is like that. Once you know where you are going you choose your path with that goal in mind. You often must chose a rocky uphill path if your goal is on top of the mountain. Some participants may be happy to stay on the flat, enjoying the status quo. You need two things to succeed, a clear and understood goal, and the determination to work through the routes that will take you there.