The Story of No Rain (Or: Blame the Drought on Cake and Newly)

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By Elizabeth Speth

Once upon a time there were two beautiful horses, Cake and Newly.  They lived in a gentle place, where the sun mostly shone.  Winds seldom blew here.  Harsh cold and snow were strangers.

Warm rain fell in winter.  It filled the rivers, then turned itself into delicious, sweet, tall grass in the spring.  The grass was so tall it tickled the horses’ bellies.  Wildflowers drank the rain too.

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They exploded in happy purple blooms, surrounding the horses and making them look even prettier.

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It was a good life.  Until one year the rain forgot to fall.  And the not falling was so easy, it forgot again the next year.

And the next.

From time to time, the clouds would fill with gray water, and hang low over the horses’ heads.  It seemed the clouds would empty onto the cracked, hard earth.

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And the horses would be glad, because they were thirsty, and wanted to eat delicious grass in the spring, and not breathe hot dust in the lengthening summers.

But then the gravid clouds would pass over, and no rain would fall.

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And the rivers did not fill.  They shrank to tiny ribbons in the landscape, barely flowing, and the horses were thirsty.  They were worried.

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And the wildflowers were not lush.  Not at all.  Every once in a while, a tiny dot of color would muster itself and push up through dry dirt and rocks.

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But that wasn’t the same thing at all.  Cake and Newly did not think they looked prettier standing amongst these tiny wildflowers.

And the grass did not grow.  It barely cleared the dying soil before wilting between the horses’ nipping teeth.  Eventually, there was only dust.

The horses were not happy, and so they went to speak to The Woman.

The Woman was the one who brought the hay, and the grain, the carrots and the apples.  She seemed to be in charge of the good things, the horses reasoned, although they did not know or care why.

They did not know or care what she did other than the bringing of the good things.  But, they told each other, she might know about the rain.

“We want the rain back,” they said to her.  “We are not sure what we’ve done to stop it, but we want it back.  We want the flowers that make us look prettier, and the delicious grass, and we are tired of the heat and dust.  We want to bathe our lovely feet again in the river, and drink the cool water.”

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The Woman thought, and she said:  “I will go and ask my mother, Nature, and I will see what she says.”

And The Woman did, and came back and gave the horses a carrot, and she kissed them and said:

“Mother Nature says we must go back to a simpler time.  When there were fewer people, and we made more of our own things, and grew our own food and did not care for cities.  We must go back to a simple time when horses worked harder.”

“What?” said Cake.

“The hell you say,” said Newly.

“My mother, Nature, says we must go back to a time when horses worked harder,” The Woman repeated.  “You must pull the plough and the wagon.   The earth will be back in balance, and there will be rain, and rivers, and flowers and grass.

“But you must stop lounging all day, and go to work.”

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Cake and Newly put their heads together.  They whispered while The Woman waited.  They looked at The Woman, and they whispered some more,  Then they walked over to her, heads high and eyes rolling.

“Tell your mother, Nature,” Cake said, “that we are enjoying the drought very much.”

Newly added, nodding his big head:  “Yes.  Tell her thank you, and to keep up the good work.”

And so the drought continued.

The End

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Give Me THREE MINUTES Before You Start Your Monday!

By Elizabeth Speth

Well, shoot.  It’s Monday, isn’t it?

Quick!  Come on a three-minute hike with me.  I swear it won’t take longer than that, and I’ll have you in the office on time.  I promise.  C’mon.

Come on!  Hurry up!  But watch your step.

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We’ll start here. Top of the canyon, among the poppies. They won’t be there much longer, on account of the drought. So we must say a very fond hello to them now. Our destination is that thin trickle of water at the bottom of that canyon. It should be a raging torrent right now. Again, blame the drought. But we’re not going to think about that now. We’re going to start walking.

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We’re going to look up from time to time on our steep downward trek. See the sky, the wildflowers…

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Sometimes you will get some uphills, briefly, and your knees will sigh in relief. Mostly it’s down, down, down. These trails are deep grooves carved out by water run-off, horses’ hooves, peoples’ shoes… Remember, though.  You have to climb all of it on the way home.  It’s all right.  You’re up for it.  It’s going to be great.

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Did I warn you about the butterflies? We’re going to see a lot of them. They are glorious. Thick as a butterfly blizzard.

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They seem to have a ‘flash blue’ switch they turn on, and blue magically appears on those black wings, flashing and blinking in the sun.

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More trail. It’s leveled out a bit because we’re nearly to the river. Listen.  Hear it whispering to you? Look…

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…yes… There it is! The path has widened to a road. The water is rushing by, and you can hear the calls of geese nesting there. It’s getting warm. Almost warm enough to swim.

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We linger here a bit, watching the water flow by, worried that so much of the riverbed is exposed so early in the year. We gather our strength for the climb to the top of the canyon, and we whisper to Mother Nature. Soft little prayers for rain. And for the will to go strongly to the top.

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Back up. Steep. We welcome the butterflies. We stop and take pictures of them, which gives us a chance to breathe. Watch out. That’s poison oak. All of it, except for the flower.

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Globe lilies. My favorite wildflower. They are so unassuming. But at night, the woodland fairies come and detach blooms. They tuck fireflies inside and flit about using the pearly orbs for light. These are also called fairy lanterns.

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A fragile wild iris. Showing its kind purple dragon face to the sun.

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We are (puff, puff!) back up. Among our brief friends, the wildflowers. Hey, I know you have to get to work, but…

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There is a bar in town near here. A simple place. Good whiskies, or we can just order breakfast there and think about how fun it would be to be that naughty on a Monday.

Ok.  We’re done.  Grab a water bottle, and off to work with you.  It was a good hike, my friend.  You were good company.  Be strong this week.  Get through it.

A Few Thoughts on Women — None Original

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  • Our daughters’ daughters will adore us
  • And they’ll sing in grateful chorus
  • Well done,  Sister Suffragette! — Mrs. Banks

By Elizabeth Speth

A woman of a certain age — let’s say she was just about to turn 48 — was walking through a deep woods, enjoying the loamy smell of undergrowth, and flecks of blue sky visible through ancient treetops.  She breathed deeply, eyes closed, and nearly squished an enormous frog directly in her path.

The frog fixed intense, bulging eyes on her.  His throat throbbed as his wide mouth opened, and he exclaimed:  “Kiss me!  Kiss me, and I’ll turn into a handsome prince!”

The woman’s own eyes widened.  “You spoke!” she marveled.

“Of course I did!”  said the frog.  “I’m a handsome prince.  Kiss me and release me, and I’m yours!  Hurry up!  Let’s get on with it!”

The woman just stared at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” demanded the frog, and he seemed to snap his tiny webbed fingers at her.  “What are you waiting for?  Kiss me, damnit! Don’t you want a handsome prince?”

“Truthfully?” said the woman, “At this point in my life, I’m really more interested in a talking frog.”

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“I can’t decide whether I’m a good girl wrapped up in a bad girl, or if I’m a bad girl wrapped up in a good girl. And that’s how I know I’m a woman!” ― C. Joybell C.

I am, unmistakably, a woman.  There is just no hiding the fact.  There have been times in my life when I have regretted it. When it seemed that men were having all the fun.

I am older now, and smarter, and fortunately, I live in a world where that is mostly no longer true.  There are still some holdouts — places, people and situations try to cast femaleness as synonymous with misfortune.  In my life, though, there is an H.R. Department that takes care of holdouts.

The thing that I eventually figured out is that men don’t really have all the fun.  ‘Fun’ doesn’t belong to anyone — it is actually just a matter of permission.  We have to give it to ourselves.  Permission to say and do what we like.  To have opinions that may ruffle or surprise.  To sprawl, to occupy and claim a space.  To be loud sometimes, vigorous.  To take risks.  To take time for ourselves.  To protect ourselves.  To put ourselves first. To say no.  Or yes.

It has taken me the majority of my life so far to learn about permission.  Which is fine.  Having fun toward the end of the party is better than having no fun at the party.

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“It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman. Phenomenally.” ― Maya Angelou

It cheers me, looking at our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters and our daughters, to see that women are coming into themselves a lot sooner with every generation.  We have hundreds of years of women before us to thank for that.  Knowing full well they would not see change in their own lifetimes, they grimly did battle for us.  We owe it to them to own what they won.

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Now, I’m a bit of a hypocrite, touting equality while occasionally batting my eyes to get what I want.  I love a door opened for me if my hands are full, and I usually won’t take a seat when it’s offered, but I appreciate the gesture.  I may need it someday.  I suspect I am still entitled to first rescue from a sinking ship (although I share a lifeboat with the children).

But I know there is a quieter, gentler way to get where I am going, because that is who I am.  Thank goodness for red lipstick, and hats with flowers on the brim.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being womanly.  Many men adore us for a reason.

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 And I love them back.  Boy, do I.  They are wonderful.  I love how they think.  I love their deep voices, their vigorous humor.  I am pleased about all the ways they are different from me.   They certainly make life more interesting.  We go fairly well together, men and women, once we learn to synthesize ourselves.  Once we figure out the choreography.

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She listened to her heart above all other voices.  – Kobi Yamada

But thank goodness I know trying to be a man is a waste of a good woman.

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“She is free in her wildness, she is a wanderess, a drop of free water. She knows nothing of borders and cares nothing for rules or customs. ‘Time’ for her isn’t something to fight against. Her life flows clean, with passion, like fresh water.” ― Roman Payne

Passing Through the Shadow of the Valley of Mean People

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By Elizabeth Speth

I love Sundays.  In my mostly beautiful life, they are a high point.

On Sundays I saddle up my horse Cake, and we ride through beautiful places like this:

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And this:

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There is a little scotch in my flask.  I take pictures.  I enjoy the rhythm of Cake’s breathing and Mother Nature’s too.

On a recent Sunday, I hurriedly loaded my horse in the trailer at home, drove for a bit, unloaded him at a trailhead overlooking the American River Canyon and the famous Western States trail network.  I unloaded my saddle and began brushing Cake as he munched grass.  And then I saw blood on his flank.

I looked everywhere to find the source, and finally did.  The underside of his tail, hidden to the casual eye, was a bloody pulp.  It could have starred in its own horror movie. Further frantic examination revealed large swollen spots on his belly, possibly lymph nodes.  Maybe abscesses.  I couldn’t tell, and it was Sunday.  A day my veterinary clinic reserves for emergencies.  I needed help determining whether this was one, so I called the clinic on the spot and got the vet on the phone.

While I was describing Cake’s symptoms,  a man parked his car next to me.  A lean, sinewy, older fellow, dressed for running.  He looked at me and my horse, and asked what was going on, even though I was clearly conversing on the phone.  I held up one finger, and continued to explain my situation to the vet.

Running Man peppered me with a few more questions, which got tangled in my worried mind with the vet’s simultaneous queries.

Running Man:  “Is your horse sick?  Is he lame?  What’s the problem?  It’s a great day for riding.  Are you going to go?  Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, can it?  Oh, blood on the tail?  That’s not a big deal, can’t your wrap it?  Why don’t you just wrap it?”

I held up my finger again as my vet, a sweet and patient woman on her day off, asked me to snap some photos of the tail and belly, and then text them to her, so she could decide whether he should be seen emergently.  I hung up, trying to figure out how to hold a now-dancing Cake, lift his tail, and snap pictures in enough light so they could be seen.  Also, Running Man was beginning to frustrate me.

He asked again what was wrong, I told him briefly, and added that I was in the process of dealing with it with the vet.

He offered his opinion that we coddle our horses too much, it didn’t sound that bad to him, maybe I should just try this, or that, or maybe this other thing, which in his experience always worked …”

I was flustered.  I said:  “Sir, thank you, but I’m actually a bit distracted right now.  The vet is waiting for pictures so she can help me determine what to do.”

“What to do is obvious,” he replied, even though he hadn’t actually seen the problem for himself.  “You just blah, blah, blah.…”

“Sir,” I said.  I really need to focus on this.  “I’m getting veterinary help.  Thank you very much.  Enjoy your run.  It’s a beautiful day.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I’m going to run a bit in the canyon, maybe eight miles or so, although I’ve got this sore hamstring, but I think I can make it to that spot at the….blah, blah, blah…”  That went on for a bit.

Meanwhile I”d dropped my phone twice, smeared it with blood, and finally managed to get the tail up to snap the picture by holding Cake’s lead rope in my teeth so his rear end was facing the good light.

“That doesn’t look too bad,” said Running Man.  “Probably been rubbing it.”

(Because horses always rub themselves bloody for fun! Everyone knows this!)

He continued:  “What you want to do is…”

I took a deep, deep breath.

“Listen.  I’m in the process of figuring out to do with a veterinarian.  Who is waiting for pictures.  I’m flustered, and worried about my horse.  I’m just having a little trouble giving you my full attention right now.  I want to devote it to this.”

He drew himself up.   “I finished Tevis (hundred mile equine endurance race), you know.  It’s not like I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

What I wanted to say:  “Good for you.  I had no idea they handed out veterinary degrees upon completion.”

What I said:  “Good for you.  I’m going to call my vet now.  Please excuse me.”

Running Man’s face hardened.  His eyes narrowed meanly, right before he slowly and deliberately swept them over my flushed, sweaty,  addled, disheveled self.  I knew what he was going to say before he even said it.  I both saw and felt it coming.

“Maybe,” said Running Man, “now that your horse is laid up, you can take up running.  You look like you could use some exercise.”

My mouth dropped.  The phone rang — my vet had received the pictures.  Running Man said a few more things I did not hear because I turned my back on him.

My vet said:  “That actually looks pretty awful, Elizabeth.  Let’s get him in.”

I don’t remember when Running Man actually disappeared (hopefully forever).  I loaded my horse and headed to the clinic.

I won’t leave you in suspense about poor Cake.  He had an extreme allergic reaction to something he was grazing on in the pasture.  Many daily scrubbings and ointments and medications later, he is on the mend.

My wounds, however, have been slower to heal, and I am stuck in the shadow of the Valley of the Mean People.

Because I don’t meet many of them, to tell you the truth.  Very few people in my life exert themselves to annoy, irritate, aggravate, provoke, inconvenience, or wound me.  The opposite is in fact the case.  Even at work.

If your life is full of annoyers/irritators/aggravators/wounders, I am so very sorry.  What a horrible, toxic thing.  I wish you strength and  courage.  You can stop reading this now, because you are likely thinking I’ve been a naive idiot, living in a fool’s paradise on a fatty diet of illusions.

I started gnawing on this as soon as I knew Cake would live.  Driving home from the vet clinic, a few dollars lighter, there were voices in my head.

My grandmother’s — I could hear her clearly — repeating one of her favorite phrases: “Well.  He doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose, does he.”  This was never a question for her.  It was a statement.  No question mark.

I thought about my grandfather, a big man with a booming voice who would have cold-cocked the goose senseless had he behaved thusly toward my grandmother.

As I turned into my driveway, my memory replayed one of my dear friend Stefan’s oft-repeated and much-beloved character summations:  “What an ass-hat!”

It made me miss my grandmother, my grandfather, and Stefan, but it marginally comforted me.  Stefan is the only one of the three I can still talk to about these things, grandmother and grandfather being long gone, and so I did.  He is an incredibly articulate fellow, with a surgical precision when it comes to defining social boundaries and reasonable human interaction.  I am a proud graduate of the Stefan Murphy Finishing School of Professional and Personal Excellence, and my diploma is treasured.

I know Stefan would have leveled the man with one polite phrase had he been in my scuffed-up riding boots (but his would be polished to a fine sheen, and manufactured for him personally by Ralph Lauren).  Stefan would never have let the dialogue degenerate to the level of personal insults.  He’d have sent Running Man packing definitively after his second ill-timed question.  I know this about Stefan, but I can’t think fast enough on my feet to replicate what he does.

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Stefan is the opposite of mean. If he is your friend, he will write impassioned letters on your behalf to people who wronged you in childhood. He jots down limericks on difficult days to cheer you up. He will devastate your enemy with a graceful insult.

So I decided to ask him instead how he copes with the aftermath of a mean person.  Does he dismiss it?  Let it go?  Namaste his way through it and move on to bigger and better things?  Or does he dwell on it, let the experience form an ulcer of angst in his soul?  Because I was working on one of those.

“Oh I’m a dweller,” he assured me after I told him my sad tale, and we agreed Running Man wore an ass for a hat.  “An Olympic caliber dweller.  I could medal in the Dweller Decathlon.”

All right.  I felt better.   But I still had the spiritual hazardous spill to clean up.  The ulcer to heal.

As the song says, there’s so much in this world to make us bleed.  And, I’m sorry, I have to believe most of us in this world don’t really want that.

Sometimes, when I am stumped in the Compassion Generation Department, it helps to look at the world from the other guy’s perspective.  Cover a mile in his proverbial running shoes, as it were.  I thought of Running Man, and figured it was safe to conclude he is oblivious to social cues.  He is self-involved, attention-demanding, and has a bit of a temper.  He lashes out when he doesn’t get his way.

Overlooking the personal insult, he invaded my life at a time when I was terribly worried about my horse.  He hijacked the situation and demanded an ego stroking.  People rarely only do this now and then, to my way of thinking.  It’s got to be a lifestyle, right?

So, when he interacts with people, they must respond to that fairly uniformly.  When he executes his signature Running Man moves, people are likely often outraged and offended.  So what does Running Man see then?

He sees narrowed eyes.  Hard faces.  Jaws set against him.  He sees a hard, angry world, and it is possible he has no idea that he started all of that.

Of course, I don’t know his struggles.  Maybe they are enormous. Maybe I would weep if I knew his hardships.  There’s so much in this world to make us bleed.

These are the closest things I have to answers.  Unlike my grandmother, some of my observations end in question marks.   At least for a while.

I’m not excusing the ass-hat.  He is going to have to get himself figured out, squared away.  Or not.  I’m just trying to get past him.

But first I want to say something to him.

Running Man:  On the off-chance you read this, and it provokes/irritates/aggravates/wounds you, I want to paraphrase one of my favorite authors by way of explanation.  If you want people to write/think fondly of you, you should have behaved better.

Let’s end on a good note, shall we?  This is Cake.  Feeling better.

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An Interview With My Husband

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By Elizabeth Speth

It was a risky proposition, corralling Neil with a series of probing and provocative questions.  I knew it could skid sideways at any point.  There was the possibility of profanity, of inappropriate and suggestive responses.  Political rants were likely.  If his critics are to be believed, Neil can be counted upon to gauge what is expected of him, only to execute an immediate and opposing course of action.  He might have clammed up completely.

We have all heard the stories — the mismatched shoes at work, the crumpled hat, the sleeping at the desk.  The inappropriate texts accidentally sent to his children.  Who is the man behind the mess?  Was finding out worth the almost inevitable fiasco?

After a long negotiation process, several cancellations and no-shows, he arrived late on a cloudy morning for our interview at the dining room table.  He declined to remove his sunglasses.  He was restless, edgy.  Periodically, he stared into space, and several times he rested his forehead in his hands, closed his eyes, and appeared to sleep briefly.  I had hoped a glass of wine would help.  Or whiskey.  Neil is famously fond of a good bourbon.  He declined those offers, and requested espresso.  I knew we were in for a challenging discourse.

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Elizabeth:  Thanks for sitting down with me, Neil.  First let me just say that there are no right or wrong answers.  However, I do expect  you to give me the answer I want.  If you don’t get the answer on the first try, I’ll ask you again, and eventually I’ll just change the answer to my preferred response.  So there’s no pressure on you.  My first questions is:  Can you give me a three-sentence biography? Only the high points, please.

Neil:  Born in New York.  Happy Childhood.  Married well.

Elizabeth:  Describe your life in one sentence?

Neil:  All itches scratched — no holes.

Elizabeth:  Uh.  Ok.  What is your philosophy as a father?

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Neil:  As a father?  Lead by example.  Of course I’ve fallen woefully short.  My intent is to provide a secure foundation, support their decisions.  I’m a kind of loosely authoritative figure.  Just this side of arbitrary.  Maybe the other side of completely arbitrary.  It doesn’t matter, because they never pay attention to my parenting.  So don’t expect me to tell you if it works.  I guess my parenting style is ‘be ignored’.  

Elizabeth:  Perhaps it’s still being formulated….

Neil:  The truth is, I spent too much of my parenting time thinking about the wrong things.  Stressing about work.  I should have spent more time developing my parenting style. Don’t write that down — that’s off the record.

Elizabeth:  Of course. Next questionYou are not a vain man, not overly-encumbered by ego.  Yet you do allow yourself a couple of small vanities.  You are meticulous about your weight,  and you never leave the house without cologne. Discuss.

Neil:  I don’t think I take myself too seriously.  We all have ego.  Mine was spent in achieving my professional goals.  That was enough impetus to get me where I needed to go.  Ego should be used to motivate you to achieve goals.  It should be harnessed, like a work horse, but then you should be done with it.

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Elizabeth:  What defines ‘manhood’ for you?  You have sons.  What would you like them to know about being men?

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Neil:  I don’t put much stock in manhood.  I believe in being a good person.  Politically, I’m a conservative, and sometimes people like me are accused of waging war on women.  But I don’t think in those terms.  I believe in good human values, man or woman.

Elizabeth:  Name a time you were horribly, woefully wrong about something, and I was right, but you never admitted it.

Neil:  Can’t think of anything.

Elizabeth:  Take as much time as you need.

Neil: Well, I can tell you one time you were very, very right.  You signed me up to coach youth basketball without asking me first.  If you’d asked, I’d have said no.  It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.  A great experience.

Elizabeth:  I feel that you dodged the question, but we can come back to it.  What is your favorite thing?

Neil:  Weekend horseback rides.  The American River Canyon.  My childhood.  Good health.

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Elizabeth:  What is your least favorite thing?  

Neil:  Waking up at five a.m. to go to work.  Feeling rushed.  Feeling hustled.  Feeling rushed and hustled by my wife.

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Elizabeth:  What is a thing it has taken you a long time to learn?

Neil:  Two things.  One, how to get rid of the slice in my golf swing.  That took thirty years.  The other thing you taught me.  You told me that we are never, ever going to change anyone’s mind about religion or politics when we argue with them.  Can I apply that to the horribly, woefully wrong question?

Elizabeth:  I guess.  What is the one, only, teeny-tiny only complaint you have about me?  

Neil:  You are headstrong.  You also —

Elizabeth:  That’s one.  Next question:  Do you have a system in place so you will not go to work anymore with mis-matched shoes?  

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Neil: As long as they match closely enough, does it really matter?  I have eight pairs of shoes I wear to work.  It’s really hard to get that many shoes matched up.  I look at my shoes like my children.  As long as they are being cared for and given equal amounts of attention, it doesn’t matter if they are mismatched.

Elizabeth:  Your shoes are like your children.  Got it. Goals?  Other than to raise good shoes?

Neil:  I‘d like to sleep more.  I’m looking forward to growing a garden this year.  I want to retire so life can really begin.

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Elizabeth:  Speaking of retirement, what age do you feel you are?

Neil:  Depends on the time of day.  I used to feel perpetually 35.  How old are you?  You are old.  You’ve got a birthday coming up, haven’t you?

Elizabeth:  I’ll ask the questions, Neil.  What do you feel was the greatest accomplishment of your parents’ generation, and your generation, and what would you like to see your children’s generation accomplish?  .

Neil:  My parents’ generation…  Putting a man on the moon.  It was a feat of discovery beyond all knowable borders.   A dream fulfilled.  My generation?  The internet.  That changed everything.  Suddenly all knowledge is possible.  

Elizabeth:  And your children’s generation?  What would you like to see them do?

Neil:  I’d like to see them focus more on self-reliance, on family and community.  (Note:  Neil said some things here that were very politically oriented, which I have edited out.  I will save those for when I start a blog titled:  Mostly Strident and Argumentative Things.)

Elizabeth:  What is your favorite one-liner?  

Neil:  That’s easy.  It’s:  ‘Orally.  How do you take yours?’

Elizabeth:  (…is speechless…)

Neil:  That’s in response to the question:  ‘How do you take your coffee?’  I have another one.  ‘Lying down.’  Which is what you say when someone asks you how you slept.  

Elizabeth:  That’s really all the time we have now, Neil.  Thank you very much.  

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Neil:  I have a lot of jokes like that.

Elizabeth:  We’re good.  Thank you.

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Neil posing with the author, post-interview, to show there are no hard feelings.