DIY Happiness




Three thousand years and hard-won lessons of the past century continue to steer us in the right direction. Fewer people live in poverty. Women win more rights and leadership roles. Through science and political compromise, we continue to make headway into a better world.

However, while our technologies and practices change, we ask many of the same age-old questions:

What does it mean to be an upstanding citizen?

How can we achieve optimum health?

What is the secret to happiness?

The famous writer Johan Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “He who cannot draw from three thousand years is living hand to mouth.” I don’t want to live hand to mouth. I want to know what our forebears can tell us about happiness. Thucydides, born in 460 BC, said, “The secret to happiness is freedom. The secret to freedom is courage.”

This isn’t how I usually think of happiness – linked to freedom and courage. Instead, I like to think happiness is securing a good job and pursuing meaningful hobbies and having fun with friends. This is the stuff of happiness. But perhaps in my privileged place in history, clad in this privileged white American skin, helped along so frequently by my privileged gender, armored with a privileged boarding school and university education – perhaps I need to step back. I need to step back and consider Thucydides’ words divorced from my rich inheritance.

Is the secret to happiness freedom? To find out, I could ask a person forced to convert to a foreign religion, one imprisoned or enslaved, anyone made to conform. I could ask someone whose power, individuality, or self-determination have been hijacked. I think they would speak on the merits of freedom. They have. Their names are Alexander Hamilton. Susan B. Anthony. Ghandi. Frederick Douglass. Martin Luther King Jr. Nelson Mandela. Harvey Milk. Aung San Suu Kyi. Malala Yousafzai.


I should also consider the opposite: can one be happy without the power to act, think, or speak as one wishes? No, I think Thucydides was on to something. If one cannot be happy without freedom, freedom is indeed a necessary ingredient.

Yet is the secret to freedom courage? So often we win freedom through battles of the body. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Emancipation Proclamation – these were founded on courage, and they pave the way for freedom to flourish. But beyond the political realm, there is another type of freedom. It’s more subtle and better suited to a discussion of happiness inside our civilized society. It too requires bold commitment and bravery.

I speak of a freedom of mind, a freedom of sexual identity, a freedom to be confident and comfortable in one’s skin, with one’s quirks, perhaps against the grain of social norms (but within the bounds of decency). Embracing one’s individuality demands courage because stepping from the crowd singles us out. There we are, alone and vulnerable to the judgments of others who can be cruel and dangerous.

Once I stand alone, though, two things become obvious. First, every person is equally unique. We’re milling in a crowd of vast similarities and crucial differences. As I discover and accept my idiosyncrasies, the veil drops. If I’m not like my brother or like my father or like my neighbor in substantial ways, they too are different from one another.

Second, the judgments of narrow minds will not destroy me. Inevitably, someone will criticize me for not being more outgoing or being too serious or valuing evidence over sentiment; but if I’m true to myself, if I remember Thucydides and am courageous, these blows will remind me of the path on which I stand.


Happiness does come with freedom, and freedom can often be won with courage – courage of the body or of the mind. Our physical and political rights are meant to be protected by a just state. We guard it with our votes and our courts and perhaps with our lives. The mind – that is to be protected and cultivated through recognition of an individual’s worth.

I am not meant to be like you. I am meant to be me.

And you are meant to be the beautiful, precious you.

In that truth, I see a road to happiness. I will no longer grasp at excuses for myself. I will appreciate my introversion and my inexplicable love of the movie Pride and Prejudice and my need to write and speak, even into an abyss if I must.

As for you: I promise to value your mind, your strengths, and your interests that in their best expressions only add to the wealth of our species. 2,500 year ago Thucydides suggested happiness blooms from freedom and freedom blooms from courage. It’s an insight ahead of its time: self-actualization is a feat of bravery. Here’s to courage – mine, yours, ours.


(Originally published in the Moab Sun News.)


Your Beautiful Backstory

When I lived in Morocco, I learned devotion meant cabbies would park on any curb to unfurl prayer mats as the adhan echoed through Tangier’s cobblestoned streets. I realized a prince rooming across the hall was merely another human being. I discovered being American entitled me to win astounding scores from my pre-calculus teacher, travel the country on a whim, join the headmaster for drinks following the school play, and break curfew.

IMG_5587I came to appreciate that people see the world through different eyes. History and personality and culture color these lenses through which we apprehend existence. At the time, I was an avid runner. I ran every day after class, exploring neighborhoods that sprawled over the Mediterranean coast, bringing pedestrians up short with my bare legs, doubly shocking them with an Arabic greeting – As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you). Through old slums, down along the salty port, upward between walled estates of affluent Europeans – my running circuits expanded to cover the entire city.


Photo: Tim McRae

For my edification or perhaps for my safety, one of the guards at the American School introduced me to a local runner, Muhammad. He spoke decent English and brought me to the Tangier’s outskirts, then the countryside beyond. We cut down dusty dirt tracks and surveyed arid farmland. Sometimes we tested our speed against each other, sprinting fast back to the campus gates and collapsing on a redolent green to stretch. On one foray into the hinterlands, we rounded a thicket and nearly plowed into a bearded old man clad in a white robe and sandals. Alarmed, he stumbled back and yelled at us as we sped past.

“What did he say?” I asked Muhammad, afraid that he was angry with us for trespassing.

“He asked what we are running from, who is chasing us.”

I laughed. Muhammad grinned. And we ran on.


My friend Muhammad leads on the left during a 15K race beside the waterfront in Tangier, Morocco. Photo: Tim McRae

Six weeks later, I found myself massed behind the starting line of my first ever road race, a 15K. At the sound of a pistol, Muhammad and I and a hundred others set off for five flat laps around a circuit near the waterfront. Moroccans are famously fast runners. Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi held the marathon world record shortly after my time in Africa. I watched the top seeded runners dash away as if I languished in a slow-motion twilight zone. They blasted past me on the far side of the median. Still I pressed on to do my best. Muhammad and I battled for advantage. The field became ever more strung out. When I passed alone under the shadow of some palms, a spectator stepped out from the crowd and bellowed in English, face contorted with hostility: “You’re going to lose, American!”

I returned his glare and ran on.


Photo: Tim McRae

The alarmed rural peasant, an aggrieved race spectator, this privileged American exchange student – our worlds illustrate only a fraction of the breadth of human experience. Reflecting on these circumstances (and many more), I see huge divergence between the ways we know reality. I must accept the fact that we will not see eye-to-eye on a vast range of topics. Even here in the small town of Moab, where our views should align more closely, the lenses through which we see differ considerably.

How does a second-generation Mexican American relate to our politics and culture? Compared to a recent arrival from a big city, what is a lifetime Moabite’s perspective on this changing landscape? How do religion, family, gender, and unique life experiences inform the way your neighbor or your colleague see the world?

It comes as no shock that misunderstanding and offense are so common – an emoticon misinterpreted, a statement taken out of context, a subtext real or imagined, a motive assumed, a backstory unknown. Too often a natural human negativity bias and this confusing world join together to throw suspicion and judgment out-of-hand over people and concepts unfamiliar to us. Nature and hard experience have taught us that it’s safer to be paranoid, to reject perspectives different than our own.

51MfVDOlEkL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_As counterbalance, Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements hits upon some key ideas, in particular: 1) Don’t make assumptions. My assumption was wrong regarding that Moroccan farmer who seemed angry. Muhammad’s translation revealed that he was only confused by our sudden presence. 2) Take nothing personally. I was furious with that man who bellowed at me during the race. I was the target of his antipathy, but his anger reflected only his perspective. It wasn’t about me. It was about him. Ruiz says, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on theirs.”

I no longer need to travel to a far-flung place like Morocco to appreciate that our standpoints are different. Mine and Muhammad’s. Yours and mine. Our neighbor’s and colleague’s. Experience of the human condition keeps piling up and reiterating daily: I should assume nothing and remember there are many ways, unfathomable or lovely, to see existence. Let us debate ideas and keep ourselves safe, but let us also acknowledge the vast unknown, usually benign, and often beautiful backstory of our fellow human being.

• • •

Originally appeared in The Moab Sun News, June 23, 2016.



Season of the Horse

Some love stories don’t end happily ever after.

Raised in the 40s in rural New Hampshire, my mother worked a large family farm alongside ten brothers and sisters. 78 relationships between thirteen people make for a complex household. When they weren’t arguing or pestering each other, the children candled eggs and shoveled manure and stored hay for the horses and weeded a garden large enough to feed eleven children aged two through twenty-two. My old-school Irish grandfather, keen on the sport of boxing as its popularity soared in the 1950s, laced gloves onto the boys’ fists and made them duke it out when tempers rose – and sometimes just for sport. It was a hard life that took a toll on all, but especially on the girls. Two of my aunts died tragically as young adults.


Brilly, my mother’s first horse in East Andover, NH.

Always, my mother loved horses. They saved her. Between chores and fighting for food at mealtimes, mom rode their old mare out into the woods to cover miles of logging trails, bareback and free. She understood equine temperament. She talked her brother into buying a saddle to share and read every horsy book she could find.

Upon leaving the farm and graduating nursing school, my mother struck out into a life without horses that ranged from New York City to Barstow, California. It didn’t last. A few years later, she settled down again in New Hampshire to make a family of her own. Soon, two horses and a pony filled the stable. Saddles and bridles and bits proliferated in the tack room. My mother was at home once more – throwing hay bales and riding for miles through the woods of East Andover.


Mom with her Arabian, Zabreeze.

By the time she turned sixty-eight, my mother had spent sixty-three years on horseback. She competed in dressage and jumping. She organized group rides with friends across New England. She acted as a judge at regional cross country races. She found an Andalusian mare to breed. She was thrown and trampled and bitten and nearly drowned, her financial health stretched to the limit by foaling complications and vet bills, and she loved it all.

Horseback riding saw her through divorce. It saw her through the deaths of parents and siblings. Her love of horses defined who she was and wanted to be. She sometimes acted like a horse, wild and ready to run in heart and body when a mysterious fancy struck her, and she definitely often smelled like a


One of her beautiful Andalusians, Dulce.

horse.Since she was old enough to walk, my mother lived and breathed horses.

Until last year.

At sixty-eight, she found herself on a trail ride with a clutch of young companions. Dulce, her spirited Andalusian, wouldn’t calm down in the presence of unfamiliar horses. He skittered sideways, tossed his head, and spooked at things that never before made him flinch. A new calculation took shape in my mother’s mind. It weighed the possible

solara 06

Her gorgeous and young Andalusian, Zolara.

costs of falling against good health over the remainder of her life.

Three months later, after much dread, she watched her horses step into a trailer that would take them away forever.

A lifetime of routine still makes her rise early and walk to the barn. Empty stalls await. Her dog noses through the quiet pasture where grass grows up, unshorn by graceful four-legged creatures. The sounds of hooves and whinnies, the warmth of big friendly bodies, the smell of oats and hay – they are gone.IMG_0260 My mother remains, bereft of the joy those beautiful animals bestowed on her for six decades. She shares horsy Facebook posts now more than ever.

I see my mother mourning and can only imagine what it feels like to acknowledge a future that no longer includes brushing down a new foal or cresting the top of Tucker Mountain on horseback.

This is the pattern of life. We win things, they stay with us for a time, and finally they are lost. Whether power or proficiency, youth or horses – our possessions eventually slip away. Sometimes the forfeiture stings, assuaged perhaps by memory – of galloping over hayfields or hugging a pony who raises his head for a pat. And perhaps it helps my mother to imagine her horses at their new home with a young family just settling down as she did once.

My mom’s heart broke over the loss of her horses. However, after listing them for sale, she began mentoring a little girl desperate for her care and guidance. With time once dedicated to chores and haying, she visits her grandchildren more often. She travels with her husband to the Atlantic ocean that she so cherishes.

The season of the horse has passed. I had the privilege of witnessing my mother’s horsy lifestyle that was lush and joyous and long. Now, even faced with her heartache in every Facebook clip about riding, I still only wish to follow my passions as she followed hers, bravely unto retirement and beyond, until they set over the horizon. By my mother’s example – then and now, in her bravery and in her commitment  – I will wring and wring and wring every drop of vitality from these precious days.


Mom and I heading off for a ride one fine morning in East Andover, NH. (c. 1986?)

Teach for America, Islamism, and Shades of Gray

Nearing graduation from the University of Vermont, I set my sights on one special project: gaining admission to Teach for America (TFA). They recruit college graduates who commit to two-year stints teaching in underprivileged communities with the aim of closing the achievement gap. Last year, 44,000 applicants vied for 4,000 positions. According to Tom Rath and Barry Conchie in Strengths Based Leadership, it’s “now regarded as one of the most selective and prestigious jobs in the United States, even for Ivy League graduates.”

web1_ccsd_11Perhaps because the interviewer admired my tenacity in running long distances, Teach for America offered me a position in one of the poor neighborhoods of Las Vegas. While attending TFA’s training program, I learned that I had won a spot teaching first grade. Though I wanted to serve at-risk children, I asked if there was any flexibility to work with an older age group. The answer was no. The new program in Clark County would also require that we take a full-time college course load while working as hastily prepared first-year teachers in some of the city’s most difficult, overcrowded classrooms. With disappointment but also with an eye trained on my own future health, I withdrew from TFA. While shopping in a Las Vegas Whole Foods seven months later, I ran into Sarah, one of my standout former TFA colleagues. Sarah hadn’t dropped out.

Looking haggard, she clutched my arm in one hand and a slapdash salad in the other. She said, “You’re so lucky! I hate it. It’s driving me insane.”

Later, I learned research shows student performance under TFA instructors approximately on par with student performance under average teachers. A friend confided in me about TFA’s overzealous preoccupation with test scores. Some criticize TFA for promulgating an elitist and mistaken narrative where underprepared do-gooders ostensibly swoop in to fix broader cultural problems.

That’s not to say that Teach for America gets it all wrong. They do have an admirable goal. They do channel some of the country’s best graduates toward education. Other studies show that under corps members, students get the equivalent of one extra month of instruction over the course of a year.

Was TFA all that I hoped for? No.

Instead, it was an object lesson in the nuance of reality. Across the board, things are far more complicated than they first appear.

Take the European migrant crisis as an example. News outlets and social media brim with tirades from the left and right, which cover the spectrum from encouraging unmitigated immigration to the vilification of all Muslims as terrorists. Naturally, reality is more complicated.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes, “The top priority must be making Syria habitable so that refugees need not flee.” That makes sense. However, English author and researcher Douglas Murray states that Syrians only make up a minority of the migrants. He explains, “When people say, ‘Oh, we could sort out the situation in Syria and that would stop the migration,’ they are flat out wrong… You could pretend to sort out the situation in Syria, but what’s you plan for Eritrea? … This is very largely and in the main not an asylum issue, not a refugee issue. It is an economic migrant issue.”

Kristof writes: “When Indiana today shuns desperate refugees, it is shunning people like my family.” His point: America and Europe should welcome refugees because it’s the compassionate thing to do for vulnerable people. Fair enough. However, Murray critiques this point by saying: “Being sad isn’t enough. Being sad will stop no massacres. Being sad will not divert one Islamist.”

Kristof claims the vetting process for immigrants to the United States is utterly rigorous. But is it perfect? Warning against even small infiltration of jihadists into European society, Murray says: “If a politician wants to say, for every 100,000 people who come into Europe, maybe only 20 are jihadists. The European public can then work out – twenty people, that’s twice as many people who seemed to be involved in the Paris attacks the other day. Maybe that means we only need to lose 400 people to terrorist shootouts every few months.”

The migration discussion, like all things, is complicated.

Stewing in social media or sensationalist news programs only cheapens these conversations, because soundbites grab our attention. Simple explanations gain traction. People paint issues in black or white, and hanging out in an echo chamber with likeminded friends only makes these shallow statements more resonant. It’s easy to pass on misinformation and propaganda when they’re attached to a zinger.

I’m guilty of it too. I don’t always think deeply about the issues, cast doubt on my assumptions, or look without bias at the evidence. I took Teach for America at face value. A closer look reminded me that all initiatives and ideas come in shades of grey.

I want to rekindle this lesson, especially every time I hear something condescending or hysterical or even flawless. The truth is deeper. The answers are less glib. The fabric of reality is richer. As a lover of knowledge and accuracy, I vow to give short shrift to the next platitude served up as fact. I think my life and my country deserve that and more. Don’t you?

(Originally published in the Moab Sun News on 12/17/15.)

P.S. This video digs down into the number of radical terrorists populating and multiplying on our planet. A fascinating and fact-based discussion – led by a Muslim human rights advocate! The world needs more people like her!

Orphans Broke My Heart and Put It Together Again

While tutoring orphans in the Dominican Republic, I witnessed something I will never forget.

At dusk one evening, children from across the orphanage compound began to converge on the main courtyard. Blankets in hand, they ran barefoot to win an advantageous position and sit cross-legged on the flagstones. As the sun set, a group of upturned faces waited for the show.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to José, an orphanage staffer.

“It’s Wednesday,” he explained. “Every Wednesday night is Tarzan night.”

Tarzan_2004_cover“Oh,” I said, pretending this made everything plain.

José disappeared into the administrative building and soon returned rolling a TV stand before him. Children of all ages waited in utter silence, as if poised to see something miraculous. José withdrew a VHS tape from its jacket, inserted it in a dusty player, and adjusted the tracking to banish pesky static from an overused cassette.

Disney’s castle materialized in the dark. An animated feature began, bathing that sea of orphan children in blue light. It was the story of Tarzan, an orphaned child raised by gorillas in the jungle. Though he tries to be a good gorilla, Tarzan is different. His family is gone. He never feels as if he belongs.

I looked over those children and saw fifty humans absorbing this story and relating to it as I never could.

In the movie, people finally arrive in Tarzan’s jungle. Two of them, a naturalist father and daughter, choose to stay. They become Tarzan’s family. He is found. He belongs.

These orphans in the Dominican Republic yearned to be Tarzan. To be found. To become part of a family and be loved. The tale of Tarzan represented great hope to these children. And to me this experience drove home two unassailable truths. First, anybody who grows up with a loving family has already won. To exist alongside people who care about you, rather than inside an orphanage jammed with lonely lost children – that is a stroke of fortune greater than any treasure.

Second, I understood more deeply the power of hope. One of my idols, Charlie Appelstein, a youth care specialist from New Hampshire, always says, “Hope is humanity’s fuel.” Without hope for a better future, people have no energy to forge ahead. This is especially true for children who face tough circumstances.

IMG_0004-1Years later, I wonder where these orphans are today. I wonder if those two sweet boys who hugged me hard and long before I flew away have found someplace where they can be surrounded by people whose love they deserve. I like to believe they did. At the very least, I like to believe that they could find and build a family, given the right turns of luck and opportunity. The only thing that might make such goodness bloom in the world is hope. Hope has legs. It can carry us beyond the trials and hurdles that we face personally and perhaps as a species.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Keep your hope for change. I’ll cling to my guns and religion.” For me, this threw sharp relief between the notion of hope and fear. Both states of mind motivate us. However, one is positive, it begs the question: what good can we create? It eschews the bitter flavor of paranoia and cynicism.

I have hope. And I pray that you do too, for our collective dreams are made manifest in the world every single day.

I hope we can formulate policies that make poverty, homelessness, crime, and orphanhood diminish. We’ve done it before; we can do it again. I hope we can continue to nurture our values of democracy, freedom, respect, rule of law, and equality; indeed, Western civilization sprang from these principles. I hope during the coming election year we can believe in good government run by honest people for the benefit of average Americans, a system of compromise through incremental improvements.

Of politics nowadays, David Brooks writes in the New York Times: “Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.”

We can do better. David Brooks knows it. I know it. You know it. As voters and social media users and engaged citizens, we should demand it.

Thank you, I will keep my hope for change, because almost everything good in this world – from sports to business to love to liberty to social stability – springs from positive yearning. Politically, we are like those orphans. In the courtyard of our country we sit together before an unknown future, mesmerized by a shared vision. And like those orphans, despite our differences, we all share almost exactly the same needs.


Bad Idea: the Day I Shot Somebody

Ideas can transform our world.

Combination-Set-Traditional-Archery-White-Pigskin-Longbow-Recurve-Bow-6-Bamboo-Arrows-30-80LBS-CB2T5For example, my step-brother and I once concocted a horrible idea that almost killed someone. At eleven years old, we had received bow and arrow sets for Christmas. Impatient to shoot these beautiful fiberglass recurves, we yearned for New England’s waist deep snow to melt. When the spring thaw finally arrived, we ran out onto our soggy lawn on a Saturday morning, set up hay bales as a backstop, and took aim at paper targets.

Our endless winter wait had come to a close! Taking turns, we loosed our arrows at the bullseye. Back and forth from stance to target, we shot and then plucked our arrows from the hay bales. We quickly learned one of the truths of archery: lobbing arrows at a target is very… boring.

“How far do you think I can shoot this baby?” I asked.

Matthew’s eyes brightened. “I don’t know,” he said.

A bad idea was born.

I leaned back and let an arrow fly high over a knoll toward the shuttered grange hall’s green. That arrow arced through the spring blue with what seemed single-minded focus and disappeared over the hill.

It was captivating. It was better than measly target shooting. It was glorious!

“I’m going to run out to see where they’re landing!” Matthew said.

My bad idea had just gotten somewhat worse; now at least one person definitely stood downrange. Semi-sheltered by an awning, Matthew watched from the doorway of a nearby preschool.

“Ready?” I yelled.

He nodded. I pulled back, aimed high, and was about to release when, because of the steep angle and my poor technique, the arrow fell from its rest atop my hand. The string slipped from my fingers, the bow twanged, and that arrow leapt up at an odd slant.

Bad-IdeaMurphy’s Law states: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. I’ve come to learn that bad ideas are particularly susceptible to this law.

I watched as that arrow blazed through the sky toward our neighborhood preschool. Of the innumerable paths that arrow could have taken, it fell in a perfect and unbelievable beeline toward my stepbrother. Like a center fielder – like a center fielder who does NOT want to catch an incoming pop fly – he danced to his right, he danced to his left. I watched with dread as that arrow seemed to target him like a heat-seeking missile.

It struck my step-brother dead center, and he fell back into the entryway of the school. Horrorstricken, I threw down that blasted bow and ran to find out if it I had killed him. As I sprinted, I could see only Matthew’s legs splayed out over the preschool’s steps. When I arrived, wide-eyed and panicked, he groaned, sat up, and lifted his shirt. A welt rose where the arrow had been denied entry to a lung by one of his skinny ribs.

Bad ideas sometimes seem to have a life of their own, and they can do unbelievable harm. In this particular case, I was lucky that my bad idea did relatively little damage. History, though, brims over with examples of horrible ideas and beliefs stripping people of dignity, life, liberty, and happiness. Nazism, religious crusades and terrorism, the divine right of kings, communism, and the inferiority of women come to mind, to name only a few. These bad ideas reduce human flourishing.

BN-GL677_bkrvmo_FR_20150115131932In his book, The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer explores the theory that bad ideas are on the wane. He presents evidence that we live in an ever more moral world. He shows that overall global violence has fallen, political freedoms have proliferated, gender equality is on the rise, and laws gradually improve to treat people more fairly and justly. Thanks to the Enlightenment and to scientific thought, Shermer argues, good ideas are thriving, ideas like democracy, separation of church and state, regulated free markets, egalitarianism, human rights, the scientific method, literacy and public education.

Despite evidence of an upward trend, good ideas don’t always come easily. Often they must battle regressive notions grounded in ignorance, tradition, superstition, sanctity, or self-service. Just this morning I read a story about two albino children in Africa whose arms were cut off for use in potions, because of a misguided belief that their flesh carries special powers.

Shermer writes, “In the long run, it is the force of ideas even more than the force of arms that marshal moral advancement, as notions such as slavery gradually inch by degrees from morally good to acceptable to questionable; to unacceptable to immoral to illegal; and finally they shift altogether from unthinkable to utterly unthought of.”

Thanks to many thinkers and many years of progress throughout history, I can now take aim along the range of reason, science, and kindness.


Originally published September 2015 in the Moab Sun News.

Bad Idea: Blasphemy

This story interests me. It’s a very well-intentioned and gentle argument by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post in favor of letting bad ideas slide.

I think Gerson touches on a critical point though: the best remedy for Muslim violence must come from within the Muslim community. Unfortunately, very few are working to reform the faith, particularly because doing so is antithetical to the tenets of the religion. The words of the prophet are almost universally seen as sacrosanct, and any sort of criticism of the faith is considered apostasy (and therefore worthy of execution). This is why it’s a particularly dangerous brand of monotheism. I agree that mockery and inflammatory attacks won’t help the matter, but honest criticism of bad ideas shouldn’t be frowned upon. That’s how reformation is brought about – through friction with good ideas.

By Gerson’s reasoning, though, I shouldn’t criticize the notion of divine canon that includes much justification for the barbarism he deplores. We’re talking about a faith that encourages violence if somebody draws a picture of Muhammad or writes something disparaging about Islam. We’re talking about a book filled with ideas that warrant brutality, sexism, and intolerance. By the very nature of these beliefs, it’s demeaning to point that out. That’s the problem; anyone who raises this issue is now – by Gerson’s rationale – rude, cruel, malicious, and dehumanizing. I would suggest the opposite. Anyone ready to put respect of terrible ideas above the common good is rude, cruel, and malicious.

This is where the liberal ethos seems to lose its way. Ideas do not deserve protection from criticism. Rather, we should espouse a civilization where the best ideas are challenged by reason and rise to the top by merit. To try to view blasphemy – the desecration of imaginary and therefore absurd notions – from a stance of respect only undermines our secular civilization. We are far from perfect in the secular world, but we have outstripped the Muslim world on the moral arc by light years in terms of women’s rights, economic prosperity, political stability, sexual freedom, scientific advancements, moral philosophy, and multiculturalism. Gerson seems to think that a “first-rate” intelligence will acknowledge this while maintaining respect for the forces that have brutalized women, homosexuals, ancient relics, people of different faiths, and critics of Islam. I disagree. A first-rate intelligence will shrug off the misleading idea that mutual respect is born of acceptance of any and every world view.

Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

When I turned seven years old, my parents gave me a fantastic and uncommonly dangerous birthday gift. They gave me a pony. Having grown up on a little farm and ridden miles with my mother to and from kindergarten in rural New Hampshire, I was fully prepared for a horse of my own. I could balance on an English saddle and knew to keep my heels down in the stirrups. I understood the responsibilities – mucking stalls, feeding morning and night, grooming before and after trotting over the backroads of farm country.

“What’s his name?” I asked while letting him eat a carrot from my hand and then running my fingers through his shaggy coat for the first time.

“Buckwheat,” my mother said.

“That’s a funny name.”

“Bucky for short.”


I should have known right then: my parents had been duped when the former owner insisted this animal was well-trained and agreeable. I should have foreseen what awaited me in the pastures once this friendly little pony was saddled up. But I was seven. So I shrugged and asked when we could go for a ride.

The next day, Bucky accepted the saddle and bridle without complaint. Proud owner of a pony, I led him out into our fields for a test ride. My mother nodded and smiled, encouraging me to fit foot to stirrup and swing up onto his back.

I mounted and quickly learned the truth of Bucky’s name. He lowered his head and kicked his back legs up high into the air. I flew off that pony as if thrown from a full-sized horse. My helmet and the pasture’s long grass cushioned the impact. It was also a boon that I was taking gymnastics at the time, which somewhat prepared me for the tumbling lessons I was about to endure.

“Hey!” my mother said to the pony, giving his bridle a tug, one of those horse nuts who to this day believes equines comprehend human speech. “You behave.” Happily rid of its rider, the to pony began munching the grass.

“Go ahead. Try again,” my mother coaxed me. “You know what they say: You have to get back up on the horse who threw you.”

A little nervous now, I climbed aboard. This time I clung to his back through three bucks before careening to the ground.

“Hold tight on those reins,” my mother said. “Don’t let him lower his head. Try again.”

I tried again. And again. And again. Every time Bucky bucked me clear. I wasn’t strong enough to keep his head up. His head would go down. His rump would go up. And I would fly. While my mother wondered if she’d been had by the hick who’d sold her the pony, I finally gave in for the day.

Next time, I came prepared. We cinched him with a western-style saddle, which provides a more secure seat and a pommel to grab hold of too. I quickly learned that the pommel can behave much like a fist swung in an uppercut motion when a horse bucks a rider off balance. On my first try, I got the wind knocked out of me before toppling to the ground. Then my friend Jed asked to give it a go. He valiantly teetered for a stint of bronco training before falling to the ground.

“That’s it.” My mother eyed the animal, jaw grimly set. “Give me those reins.”

She climbed into the saddle and leaned back against Bucky as he tried to lower his head. Compared to us children, she seemed like a giant atop this little horse. Her biceps and forearms tensed with the effort. Unable to buck off this latest passenger, Buckwheat craned his head around and opened wide to take a bite out of her knee. My mother – hard-as-nails farm girl to her very core – gave Bucky a swift kick in the mouth. That straightened him out some.

Frowning mother and resentful pony stalked together around the pasture for a minute before she dismounted, disgusted and surprised that this cheeky little pony had the gaul to chomp at her. “He tried to bite me!” she growled.

The same nearly unhinged look in the pony’s eye told me I didn’t want to attempt to ride him again that day. Or the next. Or for a couple weeks. That shaggy little pony dared me to try again, to sit astride his back so he could destroy me. I was happy to let him win that staring contest.

However, the day finally arrived when my mother said, “Go get your saddle.”

While a feeling of dread smoldered in my stomach, I sloped to the tack room. I was going to be eaten by my horse. I was going to get bucked off and trampled. Buckwheat the Horrible would delight in unseating this wimpy seven-year-old and maybe getting a second shot at his mother too.

As always, my enemy accepted the bridle and saddle without so much as a twitch. I began to lead him toward the pasture, toward the Coliseum, toward my doom, but my mother said, “No, we’re going for a trail ride.”


“Come on.” She turned and led her pinto into the front yard. Bucky at my side, I followed, all the more fearful as we emerged from the barn and obstacles came into view – the uneven ground and streambed, the pickup truck and the picnic table, the tractor and dog house.

Out on the lawn, my mother mounted her horse, looked down at me expectantly, no patience.

“Are you sure?”

“Saddle up,” she said, already guiding Brilly toward the road that would take them to the logging tracks on Tucker Mountain.

I put my foot into the stirrup. I met that pony’s unreadable eye. And I swung up into the saddle, prepared for my imminent ejection and certain death by sharp hooves.

But that small horse couldn’t have been happier to trot out onto the road. My mother and I cantered over the blacktop, side by side. We looked at each other in amazement. I gave Bucky’s shoulder a pat, spoke so his ears swiveled back to listen to my tone of gratitude. And we easily coaxed our mounts to a gallop through the hay fields at the top of the hill.

Buckwheat the pony would not be ridden in his home pasture. I don’t know why. But it didn’t matter. My mother and I wanted to rove through the forests and fields of East Andover anyway, not in our own back yard. Evidently Bucky felt the same need to strike out into the wilds with a partner or two. Perhaps he needed the thrill of running just as much as I did.

Bucky, a horse that I had begun to fear, turned out to be the centerpiece of some of my most prized childhood memories. We still had a couple wrinkles to be ironed out after the bucking episodes, but it was a process of discovery and not of conquest. He needed a different bit in his mouth. Whereas a slap on the rump amounted to hitting the ejection button, a light touch with the crop on his shoulder reminded him to take care with his rider. I never would have discovered these nuances if I had given up after a few falls, if my mother hadn’t suggested we try something new. I needed to adjust my behavior to fit better with his. And vice versa.

That pony was my first real lesson in the politics of personality. Slowly I’ve come to understand this process applies to the relationships between people too.

We each have our preferences and idiosyncrasies. Whether they’re inborn or learned, we have buttons that can be pushed and certain needs to be met. First impressions reveal very little about the people we meet and later impressions usually offer only tiny snippets of a person. Since we all make mistakes and harbor complex histories and have bad days alongside the good, it can be difficult to know one another at a deep level. It sometimes takes years and moments of risk to see the shape of somebody’s character.

When we understand each other better, once we’ve come to know one another more intimately – sometimes after discord or butting heads – we can usually find common ground. We can learn to be gentler with each other. We can try new things and understand what makes one another buck. We can settle into a standard of respect and vigor where we gallop through the days of this unbelievable life.

My mother and me atop Brilly on our way to preschool. We had to leave Bucky behind for these school commutes.

My mother and me atop Brilly on our way to preschool. We had to leave Bucky behind for these school commutes.