Dog Walking in Dogtown

Dogtown StrongOver the weekend I took my dog for a walk in Dogtown.

Say that phrase and people almost instinctively conjure up a mental image of some dog nirvana but actually it’s the site of a long-abandoned town next to Gloucester and Rockport. One of the earliest settlements in New England, residents started leaving when they realized the ground was lousy for farming and fishing was much more productive.

As the population thinned out, the town got a bad reputation complete with tales of witchcraft and packs of roaming dogs – the genesis of the Dogtown nickname. It is difficult to find any traces of the town now but there is an eerie feeling hanging over it. Walking around it makes you understand what inspired H.P. Lovecraft to write the stuff he did.

keep out of debtAdding to the weirdness are the carved stones with various inspirational sayings.

These sculptures were commissioned by a man named Babson as a means of providing work to unemployed stone masons during the Great Depression. They are a major draw for tourists, dog walkers, and mountain bikers.

It is impossible to see this rock and not burst out laughing. It is wise advice and not one you hear often enough.

study-rockThere are rocks all over the place in Dogtown and it makes you wonder why the hell the settlers ever thought this was good land to farm.

Finding the inspirational saying amongst them without a map becomes a fun game of scavenger hunt. Some are easy to find, like this one right next to the trail.

sp-rockOthers are harder to find. I had to do a little minor bushwhacking and look at the backside of a boulder to find this one. There are 36 in all and I found about 10-12 during my hike.

intelligenceSometimes my dog poses so well I wonder if he actually understands the concept of photography. This shot required almost no coaxing.

get a jobAdvice takes on a whole new level of seriousness when it’s given to you unexpectedly by a 20,000 pound rock. The experience made me laugh out loud just about every time it happened. I am considering printing some of these, framing and putting them on my desk as useful reminders.

07-search-for-truthBefore I left the park, this conversation actually happened:

Wandering Person: “I am looking for truth.”
Me: “I just came from there. It’s over that hill.”

Wintermusik

This is perfect music for watching snow fall. I break it out every time there is a snowstorm. Like today, April 4th.

Last year during a snowy night I went for the full effect by playing this album after lighting a candle and shutting off all the lights in my apartment. I live on the top floor of a large apartment complex and the snow looked beautiful as it came down on the surrounding buildings and trees.

My daughters enjoyed it for about a minute before getting bored and asking me to turn the TV back on and “When’s dinner?” But later my youngest said to my mother, “Daddy played some nice music when we had the snowstorm.”

Rush to Judgment

Jury duty looks a lot like this. Photo courtesy of Mordy Seinfeld.

Jury duty looks a lot like this. Photo courtesy of Mordy Seinfeld.

In the winter of 2013 I was called for jury duty and, like most people, I looked for a way to get out of it. But unfortunately I couldn’t think of a reasonable excuse and wound up serving on a week long trial.

This was my first time on a jury and it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. Serving on a jury taught me far more than just how our legal system works, it taught me about good thinking in general and how to make good decisions.

The case we heard was a serious one, the charge was the rape of two women and the man was facing 20 years in jail. There is a lot of silence in a trial so when the charges were read aloud you could almost feel everyone jump. As the father of two young daughters, my first reaction was looking at the man and thinking, “You dirtbag.”

I don’t think I was alone in thinking this because how many of us have this same immediate reaction when we hear someone accused of a crime. We see the person in handcuffs, charges read aloud, and think, “Well, the state must have a good case. He’s guilty.”

But that assumption is wrong. Contrary to what professional hate-mongers like Nancy Grace spout on TV, the operating presumption in our legal system is “Innocent until proven guilty.” But when this case started, I started with the opposite presumption. The man was a dirtbag in my eyes and I was eager to get his trial done quickly.

Over the course of three days we heard from a variety of witnesses and for just about the entire time I was thinking “Guilty, guilty, guilty. Can we get this over with please.” If you’ve never served, trials move at an agonizingly slow pace. So it came as a shock to me, at about the three-quarter mark in the proceedings, that I thought, “Oh my God, he’s innocent.”

This thought was not triggered by any one startling revelation or particular piece of evidence. Rather it was due to a steady erosion in the plaintiff’s case. The man’s accusers were not terribly credible. The situations they described were implausible and the accusers, as much as I hate to say this, had good reasons to lie.

Jury members are not allowed to discuss a case while it is being heard. So it came as a relief when the proceedings concluded and we could finally discuss it amongst ourselves. I was pleased to learn I wasn’t alone in thinking he was innocent – 9 of the 12 of us thought the same.

We deliberated for a day and eventually the three who thought he was guilty changed their minds. After telling the judge, we marched back into the courtroom to deliver the verdict. When it was stated, you could feel the relief in both the defendant and his lawyer and the sense of disappointment in the prosecution.

This was a serious charge and I was glad to see our justice system work so deliberately in weighing it. Often the only time you hear about government is when something goes horribly wrong so it was nice to see that it actually works very well on a daily basis.

But the uncomfortable fact about all legal systems is none of them are fail-proof and they will sometimes be wrong. So it is necessary to ask which is the less bad outcome – that the guilty sometimes go free or the innocent are sometimes imprisoned? As an American, I am appalled at the idea of an innocent person going to jail and I err on the side of leniency.

Steven Avery - young and old

But why am I bringing this up now? Recently I watched the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” which recounts the story of a man named Stephen Avery who served 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

Upon his release, Avery filed a $36 million lawsuit against the town that had wrongfully imprisoned him. That’s a crazy story to begin with but it just goes bananas from there. Three days after he filed this lawsuit, Avery was accused of murdering a missing reporter. So, after being released after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment, Avery enjoyed a couple months of freedom before being marched back into jail.

The series makes a compelling case that these latest charges are completely bogus and it’s actually part of a conspiracy to discredit him and void his $36 million lawsuit. It is very persuasive and emotionally charged. There were moments where I wanted to stand up and shout at the TV, “That’s wrong! How can they do that.” I got so angry I couldn’t even watch the last episode. I wasn’t alone in feeling this way – a petition was sent to the President asking him to look into the case. It had 165,000 signatures.

Newton’s law states, “For every force there is an equal and opposite counter force” and so it was with the resistance to the show. Professional hate-monger Nancy Grace, as usual, lead the charge against Avery by saying the documentary omitted 60-70% of the facts. And, as much as I hate Nancy Grace and her lynch mob show, math indicates she’s partially correct. Avery’s trial was 200 hours long and it’s not possible to present everything in a 10 hour TV series.

Since then a number of other people have chimed in to claim the story is one-sided, including Avery’s ex-fiancee. All of the sudden I have no idea if he is innocent or guilty.

Because that’s the thing – it is really hard to sort truth from lies. That’s why our court system is structured the way it is, it moves very, very slowly and doesn’t permit discussion before all the facts are presented.

This is not only a good way to run a court system, it’s also a good way to run your life. We live in a world where people are supposed to form instant opinions. Events happen and we are supposed to form a judgment and state it to TV reporters or on social media.

A good example of someone who made bad decisions and stuck with them no matter what

A good example of someone who made bad decisions and stuck with them no matter what. Here he is declaring victory in Iraq.

What do we think of the politician who chooses a position right away and sticks with it? This person is “strong.” What do we think of a politician who says “I’m going to hold off on giving you a statement until I know more about the issue” or, worse, “I don’t know.” In our system of instant opinions, this person is considered weak.

I’m going to argue the opposite is true both for politicians and for ourselves. I’d say choosing a position and sticking with it is foolish and delivers terrible results.

In all things, I urge you to be like a juror and say, “I suspend judgment” at least until all the facts are in. It is also wise to hear both sides of the argument. When presented with information, aim for neutrality.

Because choosing a side in a hurry makes you susceptible to manipulation by liars and demagogues. You are much more powerful when you sit back and force people to convince you of the strength of their argument. Maintaining a good poker face deprives liars of a means to manipulate you – they don’t know what to say to make you agree, so they blurt out everything including sometimes the truth. Remember that mindlessly agreeing with and applauding everything someone says serves their interests above your own.

Above all, aiming for neutrality is a method for being honest. Saying “I suspend judgment” is admitting your own fallibility and demonstrates wisdom and patience. It shows you take it seriously enough to get it right. When it comes to choosing a side in an argument, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Are You Wealthy?

There is a simple equation to determine if you are wealthy. From The Millionaire Next Door, it follows:

(Your annual income * Years of age) / 10 = What your total assets should be worth

Now add up all your total assets. Is it above or below the number calculated in the equation?

While it’s a rough calculation, this equation gives a good estimate of where you stand relative to everyone else. It also makes it possible to segment out the savers and the spenders. Savers have more assets than the number calculated and spenders have less. Which one are you?

I like this equation because so often we correlate annual income with wealth. But, due to credit cards and our consumer culture, it is possible to have a big salary and still feel impoverished. I knew a person with three houses and a boat who claimed life was a  struggle and complained about their taxes. Never forget that looking wealthy (spenders) and feeling wealthy (savers) are two different things.

Don’t feel bad if you are a spender – almost every force in America is aligned to get you to part with your money as fast as it comes in. It is almost too easy to spend money these days. Back when we paid for things with paper money, you could literally feel the pain of parting with your cash. Now we just swipe a piece of plastic and the pain doesn’t happen.

I’m also not an advocate for a life of grim austerity either. Take life’s pleasures when you can, they are rewarding. As I’ve written before, being grateful for what you have been given is the key to being prosperous.

Ten Years After

day 08 - 06 dave summit.0

Today marks the 10th anniversary of my brother and I climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. That’s a photo of me  at the summit, the highest point of Africa.

It was a big moment in my personal history, never did I imagine doing something so bold. And I’d love to tell you that I’ve never felt more triumphant and my life immediately changed for the better and all that inspirational bullshit that everyone talks about when they climb mountains or run a marathon.

But no, the truth is I was wiped out and the moments leading up to this photo were not pretty. Despite being in good shape from competitive rowing, at some points I was just about crawling. The only way I finished at all was the thought, “I traveled 8,000 miles to get here and I’ll be damned if I can’t finish the last 800 feet.”

day 08 - 02 dave glaciers

The climb up Kilimanjaro starts in a 90 degree jungle and ends on a summit with glaciers

People talk about altitude sickness at 5,000 or 10,000 feet but, let me assure you, it is much more intense at 19,341. The summit of Kili has oxygen levels half those at the base.

This lack of oxygen shows up in your body not as gasping for air but as an overwhelming sense of fatigue. While climbing at the summit your entire body is saying, “Stop moving. You need to stop. Stop. It’s a good idea that you stop. You need some rest. Wouldn’t it be nice to give up? Do that. Give up.”

So when I finally reached the sign, I was happy it was over. I pulled off my ski mask and posed with the biggest, fakest smile I could muster. As soon as it was taken, I said, “Alright, I’m outta here” and started the decent.

day6 back to barafu.0

With our guide Armani. Summit camp was so littered with exhausted hikers it resembled a refugee camp

The descent is, if anything, more of a slog and makes a very long day even longer. When you climb Kilimanjaro, you get up at midnight to ascend from 15,000 feet to 19,341. Getting to the summit to see the dawn (notice the long shadows in the photo), you then descend from 19,341 all the way back down to 10,000 feet. In a 16 hour span, you traverse about 13,000 vertical feet.

I tell people of the two big mountains I’ve climbed, “Mount Rainier was terrifying, Mount Kilimanjaro was exhausting.”

day 08 - 09 andy pit.0

Continuing his tradition of upstaging me at everything, my brother opted to tour the summit while I descended. Here he is at the Ash Pit.

But I did it and I’m proud of that. Trips like these are a struggle from start to finish but the struggle, for me, makes it worth it. “I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro” is something I can tell people for the rest of my life.

day 10 - 10 andy airport

My brother enjoys a post-climb celebration beer in the Arusha airport

You can read the complete travelogue I wrote in 2006 about this trip here and view the photos on Flickr in the following installments:

Part one – landing, driving, camping in the rainforest
Part two – hiking, camping, hiking, camping
Part three – summit day(!), descending, monkeys

Thanks for reading. If you are interested in climbing Kili, I recommend Good Earth Tours.