By Elizabeth Speth

Today is my last day of being 48.

At least, I think it is. I’m a little fuzzy on the math, but I’m mostly sure that tomorrow I will be 49 and not 50.

Today, therefore, is the end of my relative youth (meaning that I am younger than many of my relatives). I’m only a whippersnapper for a few more hours, still officially in my 40s, full of pep and idealism. Mostly continent and arthritis-free. Practically a crazy kid.

After tomorrow, I won’t be young ever again, because 49 is nothing but a heart-stopping, screaming plunge into disappearing bone mass, uncooperative skin and suspicious-looking padding under my riding pants.

Tomorrow, I will be dragged, kicking and clawing, into the void of old age. Tomorrow I will stop buying lipstick because it’s all disappearing into the wrinkles around my mouth anyway, thank you very much, Revlon.

Tomorrow I will begin asking for senior discounts, giving unsolicited advice, and swinging my soon-to-fracture hips to the irresistible stylings of the big band era.

But today I think I’ve got to do something really, really special to commemorate the last little wisp of my viability as a human being in this crazy, youth-obsessed thing we call life.

Here are some suggestions I have submitted to myself:

1. Go on a crime spree
2. Go on a drunken crime spree
3. Get a tattoo (possibly of a smear of egg yolk on my chin)
4. Become famous
5. Start hoarding cats (better late than never)
6. Become a nudist (except for the adult diapers I will start wearing tomorrow)
7. Buy a motorcycle
8. Get filthy rich as a result of being famous (see #4)
9. Shave head and pierce eyebrows (or possibly shave eyebrows and pierce head)
10. Eat kale
11. Eat cheese, a lot of it
12. Join Weight Watchers
13. Learn clog dancing (check outYoutube tutorials, get distracted by teacup pig and monkey videos)
14. Start biting nails (but only my own)
15. Take a long nap, wake up grumpy and disoriented
16. Write my memoirs (make stuff up so they are interesting)
17. Re-enroll in elementary school and really pay attention in geography this time
18. Buy a car suggestive of a mid-life crisis
19. Have a mid-life crisis
20. Carry on hoarding cats, stowing extras in mid-life crisis car so no one realizes the extent of the problem

After careful consideration (and I did opt for the nap so I could sleep on it a bit) I have decided that I’m going with the kale and the Weight Watchers options, and, if I have enough points left today for alcohol, I will see if I can fit in a brief drunken crime spree. I know my neighbor leaves his door unlocked while he gardens, and I’m sure I could find something at his house to steal and then return tomorrow, after the adrenalin high has passed and I am an old woman taking stock of my life and making amends.

Alternatively, I will re-binge-watch Grace and Frankie on Netflix and clean the cat boxes.

It’s hard being young, I’m not going to lie. I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Tuesday and the Blue Chair — An Argument Between What We Are and What We Do


By Elizabeth Speth

“Come and sit with me,” said the bright blue adirondack chair under the eucalyptus trees. “Listen to the horses crunching breakfast, and later you can go for a ride.”

“No. No, Elizabeth,” said Tuesday firmly. “I am a working day. I am not a sit-in-a-chair and go-for-a-ride day.”

“Bring a cup of coffee,” urged the chair. “And that good book you are reading. There is plenty of time to pack some wine, some bread for your ride. For now stretch your legs. Breathe out.”

“I am about work!” Tuesday insisted. “I am for scrawling on paper. And click-clacking keyboards. Go to work! On Tuesdays we squint at screens and mutter about numbers.”

“The geese are scouting out nesting places by the river,” said the chair. “I think it will rain soon. Maybe tomorrow. Look at the sun shining now, though.”

“Selfish!” yelled Tuesday.

“I want to embrace you,” said the chair, holding out two sturdy arms.

“You will be unemployed!” screamed Tuesday. “You will be lazy and irresponsible and poor!”

“A slug of whiskey in your coffee would be nice,” said the chair. “Oooh. Feel how warm the sun is rising over these trees.”

“There is no time for this!” Tuesday agonized. “You will be late. You have deadlines. You are behind schedule, and falling short of expectations!”

“Tuesday sure likes exclamation points,” observed the blue chair to a passing breeze, and the branches sighed in agreement. With a gentle effort, the grass stretched, deepened its green. In grass-speak, this means: “Tuesday is loud.”

“Shut up!” commanded Tuesday, shoving my computer bag at me and slamming the car door. “You are a regular person. Regular people go to work! I am a regular day for regular people who work!”

Tuesday pushed my car all the way down the long driveway, grunting and huffing and scolding.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” called the blue chair softly, shrinking in my rear view. Sunlight winked through the back slats. “I’m here all week.”

Not-Dead Wood — The Autobiography of a Tree

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By Elizabeth Speth  

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

So said Ram Dass, and I love the quote.  I love the way we accept — and love — a tree for what it is, and the elements and factors — some of which are harsh — that made it.

Sometimes, alas, a tree is harvested.  Often, unfortunately, though many of us love them best when they are stretching between an earthy tangle of roots and the clouds.  We love them in the silent cathedral forests, in parks crawling with  happy children, or sheltering a favorite spot in our yards, shading our cups of tea and our books.


But a tree gets harvested.  Say, oh, a redwood, and it begins a different sort of life, and it is shaped again by the elements to which it is exposed.  It is formed to look like something else, and scarred, and marked.

Say the redwood is dragged from its fragrant forest, from the dappled, wild light, and it is first cut and planed and raised to form the foundation of a house and a barn, somewhere in California. Farmington, for instance, on a rural homestead, sometime in the 1930s.

Say the house turns a weathered color, and shelters a generation or two of children.  Say it is cared for lovingly, or not, but that it eventually falls into disrepair, an abandoned structure.

Say that young lovers stumble upon it, out there in the lonely open.  Maybe they shelter there for an hour or two, and they surely carve upon it with a knife, initials joined together for the life of the wood, if not the life of the carvers.

Say the old redwood structure is a silent witness to some drunken firelight revelry, overhearing hunting stories and bar-room brawl tales, and late in the night guns are fired by the beer-soaked story-tellers, and say a few bullets lodge in the old redwood, which absorbs them  stoically.  Another part of a visible history.

And then say some day my artist friend, Kermit McCourt, comes to look at this wood, with an eye toward turning it into something else.  He sees the square nail holes, where someone has hammered wallpaper.  He sees the knife slashes, the bullet holes.  He sees the original grain of the wood, the beautiful whorls.  He rests his hands on the wood, and feels all of its lives, the derelict, the sheltering, the forest.  And Kermit takes a hammer and gently begins to harvest this wood yet another time.

He stores it in his shop.  It watches him work for a year or two, until I write to Kermit and I ask him to make me a table, a big table, for my kitchen, where all my family can be together and have conversations and meals to remember.  I ask him to find some scarred, old wood.  Kermit recycles everything — he uses nothing new to make his paintings, furniture, jewelry, metal sculptures, so he is the guy to ask about scarred and old.  He is not the guy to ask if you want to separate a freshly-harvested tree from its venerable kin in the forest.  Kermit doesn’t operate that way.

Kermit says to me:  “I have this wonderful wood…  I will do it.”

And, because Kermit is a conduit for beauty that remains unknowable and unseeable to the rest of us, until it passes through his eye and his hand, he does.

He uses that beautiful old redwood, re-births it into a fine, big, strong table, held together with bolts reclaimed from a flatbed truck.  He does not stain it.  He knows the wood’s own face is beautiful, and it’s what he allows the world to still see.  He rubs it with teak oil, and layer after layer of wood wax, until it glows in candlelight and in sunlight.

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He leaves the bullet holes, and the scars, the nail holes.  He runs his fine, talented, work-roughened fingers over them, to show me, and I could weep with the beauty of it.  I do, a little, because the entire life of this wood is laid open before me.  The entire history, lovingly polished and, well, published.  Kermit has just put forth the redwood’s autobiography.

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We load the table into my horse trailer, so carefully, and I can’t believe I will take this wondrous thing home, memorize its topography, touch it every day.

As we are closing the trailer door, Kermit tells me to put my hands, from time to time, on the wood. On one level, I think he means to point out that the wood is a beautiful thing to feel, with its deep, smooth gloss, its soft, thick strength.

On another level, he is reminding me to seek those things which cannot be derived via our mere senses.  Because beauty has a feel, and so does history.  He is reminding me to step away from my judging mind.  To turn people into trees.

And we put the table in the kitchen, and it begins its next life.  A life of holding candles and fresh fruit, hot plates and soft napkins.  Bearing up under sad conversations, and serious, and silly.   Our gratitude will change the shape of it here and there, a little, maybe.  Maybe my someday grandchildren will accidentally scar it with a pair of scissors, or stain it with a marker, or glitter will become permanently stuck in some of the cracks.

That will be life, and the redwood will allow it.

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Is Texting and Aging the New Texting and Driving?

By Elizabeth Speth

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This is an intervention.

It’s going to be awkward and painful, especially for the interventionee, my husband Neil, who has become a danger to himself and others.  Who has wrought destruction and acute embarrassment and also occasional nausea upon his loved ones.  Who needs to put down his cell phone.  And walk away.  No last-minute pictures.  No farewell texts.  It’s time to go cold turkey.

Some numbers to consider as I build my case:  According to the Pew Research Center,  83% of American adults own cell phones and three-quarters of them (73%) send and receive text messages. The average 18-24 year-old sends or receives more than a hundred text messages daily.  In the 55-64 age bracket, the number is a much lower ten or so.

In the Neil Bracket, the goal here is to get the number down to a nice, round zero.  My children will back me up here.

Our beef with Neil is based on other hard, cold statistics, like the following:

One or more times a week, Neil forgets he is on a group message chain, and sends shall we say inappropriate messages to our perpetually traumatized, gagging, horrified, eye-soap scrubbing offspring.  So far only our family has been targeted, but it’s only a matter of time before the rest of the world is at risk.

It’s been going on for a while.  Neil has been chastised, he’s been warned, he’s been threatened.  There have been apologies, confrontations, ultimatums, tears, vows to go forth and sin no more.  But Neil is a recidivist.  He’s recalcitrant.  He’ll be fine for a few days, what we now know to call the Honeymoon Period, but then I get the textual equivalent of a mumble, something to the effect that he may have sent a text without his glasses again, not sure, and BOOM!  There is this, which cannot be un-seen:

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You will notice he tried to bluff his way out of this, which is typical behavior for an intervention candidate.

I actually retrieved this photo off my son’s Twitter feed.  It’s in the #Neilstrikesagain series.

More damning evidence:

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I have not included the texts that refer to specific body parts.  I have spared you that, but you can see them on our children’s Twitter and Instagram feeds.

I don’t mean to pick on just Neil here.  Well, that’s a lie.  I do.  This is an intervention.  But I’m probably guilty of being too old to text too.  I still try get the spelling and punctuation right, and I write in complete paragraphs with strong topic sentences and metaphors, as I was taught.  This kind of effort on my part, with the help of the auto-correct feature and my own lack of appropriate magnifying eyewear,  just results in a sort of word salad, especially after cocktail hour.

Perhaps you are feeling badly for Neil now.  You would like to suggest, in his defense, that he could dictate his texts, rather than typing them.  That doesn’t work in Neil’s case, because he does not proofread.  He can’t.  He doesn’t have his reading glasses.

Take a recent evening when he texted me while enjoying a seafood dinner, and presumably libations, with friends.  The mussels were apparently particularly tender that night, prompting the following dictated message of affection:

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In the wrong hands, this could have sparked an International Incident.  This man is clearly dangerous.  Note also the fact that this was, again, a group message.

It is time to face the fact that we are the Jitterbug generation.  The demographic for whom the straightforward flip phones with large, lighted keys were invented.  They can only be used to call 911 and Reverse Mortgage companies.  We can stay out of trouble this way.

Because it’s not just the texts.  It’s the photos.  Neil has discovered the selfie, and he’s obsessed.  I know for a fact, because I have photographic proof, that he goes into his office during the work day, closes and locks the door, takes inappropriate photos of himself and SENDS THEM TO PEOPLE  (more irrefutable numbers here) at the rate of approximately too many times per week.

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See what I mean?

Like a teenager, he sends pictures of what he is wearing:

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Yes, those are mis-matched shoes.  Neil wears them exactly twice yearly.  Neil doesn’t wear his glasses when he dresses either.  But that’s a different intervention.

Neil, you know we love you.  We think you are great dad (other than the inappropriate messages to your children), a great husband, and a good, hard-working provider.

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But author Sara Gruen summed it up best when she said:  “Keeping up the appearance of having all your marbles is hard work, but important.”   

So, yeah.  We just want you to put down the phone. Maybe take up the saxophone?

Or just get some sleep.

A (Textual) Conversation With My Son (About Monkeys and Really Bad Parenting)

By Elizabeth Speth

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This poor monkey is being raised in a Monkey Orphanage by Kind But Impersonal Monkey Nuns. He is waiting for Leland to adopt him.

Leland, my youngest, wants many things.

When he was Five, he wanted a robot. That never happened.

Bitterly, he built his own robots — so many of them — out of things he stole from our closets (shoes, hats, watches, jewelry, lingerie), and he left them lying around the house like reproaches.

When he was Seven, he thought he should have a parrot. He faced a wasteland of disappointment on this score also.  I once offered to make him an egg sandwich to ameliorate his grief.  He said he would rather have counseling.

When he was Twelve, he thought his own hut on a beach near his very own rum plantation was a reasonable request. I gave him ten years’ worth of Halloween pirate costume bits and pieces (including a very nice loin cloth) and wished him my very best.

I even demanded:  “Why is the rum always gone?” to express my sympathy, with a hearty “Yo-Ho!” as punctuation.

He squinted at me, sharpened his plastic swords, and said nothing.

This year, he wanted an unsupervised alcohol-rich party at our house (his father and I were meant to furnish large quantities of alcohol, and then cool our heels at a nearby motel, ignoring the sound of sirens and the frantic buzzing of our cell phones) for his 18th birthday.

The Glorious and Much-Deserved 18th Birthday Present (in time for the creature to perform tricks at said alcohol-soaked, unsupervised party) was to have been: a monkey.

Any kind of monkey. It just had to be cute and smart, according to Leland.

If you ask him, Leland will tell you he never gets what he wants.

And, on the face of it, as I sift through the tattered pieces of his childhood under our fumbling supervision, I have to conclude that he may be right.

But the negotiations, which have evolved over the years from face-to-face disappointment to electronic embitterment, are always fun.

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Leland, dear boy, as penance, I am turning myself over to the proper parenting authorities.

Please accept my blanket apology for the Childhood of Deprivation (we know what horrors this phrase encompasses, and we won’t speak of this again).


You still can’t have a monkey.


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Conversation Is An Uphill Battle

By Elizabeth Speth


Me:  (Pant! Pant! Puff! Puff!) What would you say the grade of this hill is, averaging it over the mile of climbing?

Neil (my husband):  I’d say it’s about a forty percent grade, give or take.

Me:  And we are climbing it today for the second time why?

Neil:  You need the exercise.  I’m kidding!  But you do.

Me:  Ok.  Fine.  Let’s do it.  The rain’s picking up, and now that we’re wet we won’t get warm again.  So let’s just get it over with.

Neil:  We’ll go slow and steady.  No rush at all.  You set the pace.

Me:  (Pant!  Pant!)  Neil, walk in front of me. You’re faster uphill.

Neil:   I’m walking in your footsteps, so I’m taking it super easy.

Me:  What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Neil:  Look!  We’ve already been walking for two minutes.  We’ve probably only got another 28 minutes to the top.

Me:  (Gasp! Pant!)

Neil:  We are easily an eighth of the way up now.

Me:  Listen, you can’t talk about distance or time until you’ve passed the halfway point.  That’s, like, Sports Psychology 101.  Reminding someone they have most of the way still to go is not uplifting.

Neil:  I’m not trying to lift you up, Elizabeth.  I’m trying to break you down.  So you can come back stronger.

Me:  (Gasp!  Pant!)

Neil:  This is the steepest part.  It’s a breeze after this.

Me:  No it’s not.

(More panting for a few minutes.)

Neil:  Maybe this is the steepest part.  Then it’s all easy after this.

(A few minutes of panting.) 

Neil:  Ok.  I think this is the steepest part after all.  Then comes the easy part.

Me:  Neil, this is not the easiest part.  There is a lot of steep stuff yet.  And you are not allowed to talk about distance or time or terrain.  It’s not helping.  Every time you open your mouth I’m a little more dismayed.

Neil:  That’s not a nice way to talk to someone who is being so supportive.  See how I’m staying with you?  If I were alone, I would be running up there now.  But I’m here.  Right behind you. Supporting you.

Me:  (Stony silence, punctuated by panting.)

Neil:  Why do women who are self-conscious about their weight tie jackets around their waists?  It only makes them look bigger.  Er, not you, of course.  You always look very nice.

Me:  (Tightening the jacket knotted around my waist.)  Neil, I want you to go ahead of me now. Run.

Neil:  Are you sure?

Me:  Yes.  Go.  Run.

Neil:  Ok, but don’t laugh when I flap my arms.  I always flap my arms running uphill.

(He does.)

Neil:  Yay!  You made it!  Hey, let’s take a picture of me collapsed here at the top!  How fun would that be?

Me:  Ok.


Neil:  I figure it’s going to take about thirty minutes to get back down.

Me:  The rain is really coming down.  There’s no trail left.  It’s all running water.

Neil:  Just one step at a time.  We’ve already gone one min–

Me:  Shut up.  Hey, look at that beautiful mist coming up out of the canyon.  I’m going to get a picture of that.

Neil:  Move out of the way.  I’m going to get a better picture.  Let me show you how to do it.


(About twenty minutes of silent panting, me carefully placing my hiking poles on slick, shiny rocks.)

Neil:  Be careful.  You usually fall going down.

Me:  Have I told you lately how much you don’t need to try to inspire me while hiking?

Neil:  Have I told you lately how grumpy you always are when we hike?

Me: Have I told you lately that you can go straight to h–

Neil:  How about I buy you a beer afterward?  We’ll go to the Auburn Alehouse.  Get a sampler.

Me:  Really?  Ok.


Neil:  Great hike today.

Me:  Yep.  Super fun.


Interview With The Equine — What Really Goes On Behind Those Eyes

By Elizabeth Speth

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A toast to my interview subject, Rushcreek Newly.

Well, I’m sitting here today at a popular watering hole in the South Pasture with my Arabian friend Rushcreek Newly, who has been kind enough to grant me an interview on the condition that we avoid a few sensitive topics.

Off-limit subjects include but are not limited to the whole gelding thing, sheath cleaning (look that up if you don’t know what it is), thrush, looking a gift horse in the mouth, and changing horses mid-stream.

Otherwise, it’s all on the table.

Me:  Newly, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me:  (Uncomfortable pause).  Ok.  Well.  I have often said that you are an honest horse.  What do you think I mean by that?

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me:  Newly, you have to say something.  This is an interview.  Give and take.

Newly:  I’ll answer the questions I find interesting.

Me:  Sheesh.  Ok.  Fine.  I’ll explain an ‘honest’ horse.  You have no vices.  You don’t pull back on a rope, or chew up a barn, or kick or bite.  You don’t pretend to spook at things out on the trail because you don’t want to move forward.  When I get off-center in the saddle, you usually get me back where I belong instead of trying to dump me.  You’ll trot forever.  You’re an honest fellow.

Newly:  Thank you.

Me:  Do you…uh…have anything you’d like to say about me?

Newly:  You could stand to lose a few pounds.  You are sometimes late with breakfast.  You make a good bran mash.

Me:  What do you think about the fact that, most of the time, you stand around and watch me work?  You chew hay while I pick up your poop, you look amused and rested while I haul sacks of feed. That’s some role reversal.  A mere century ago my species worked your species nearly to death on a fairly regular basis.

Newly:  Well, we have a saying in the pasture.  Karma is a mare.

Me: Speaking of ‘in the pasture’, there is no doubt that you are the alpha horse out there.

Newly:  The what now?

Me:  The alpha horse.  The one in charge.  You’re not mean about it or anything.  But you get to the hay first, you get the good spots in the shade.  When you move up, the others move off.  I’ve never seen you do anything aggressive.  It just happens.  How do you do that?

Newly:  I am a natural leader.  My mother says I was like that from the moment I plopped out of her onto a pile of clean straw.  I stood up, and I was in charge.  It helps that I am very, very tall.  I’m also calm, which inspires confidence.  And I have the You Are In My Space Look pretty much nailed.  I invented that look.

Me:  The You Are In My Space Look, eh? Can you demonstrate it?

Newly:  (Blink.  Blink.)

Me (stepping back a bit):  You were born in Nebraska, on a very large ranch, where you ran with a big band of horses, and generally had a wide open childhood.  It must have been wonderful. Do you miss it?

Newly:  Nah.  I infinitely prefer this tiny one-acre pasture that turns into a fly-ridden dust bowl in summer, and includes a view of your neighbors’ recreational vehicles and barking dogs.

Me:  That is very snarky, Newly.

Newly:  I miss eating the snow, and those Rushcreek cowboys.  They were very sensible.  I miss dominating the cows, and walking down the trail.  I will never understand your constant need to trot everywhere.  I’m not going to lie about that, being such an honest horse and all.

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Newly, showing his enthusiasm for trotting.

Me:  We have to trot.  Our sport is endurance.

Newly:  My sport is endurance.  Yours seems to be long-distance sitting and flask-swigging.

Me:  That is a water bottle.

Newly:  Sure it is.

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Newly, shaking off the vestiges of his work day. Post-ride roll in the pasture.

Me:  Change of subject.  A lot of different people are credited with saying that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.  Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, even Benjamin Franklin.  Do you know who actually said it?

Newly:  I think the more important question is:  Why did no one asked the horse if he wanted to be doing the man any good in the first place?

Me:  Man and horse have a history of deep connection, a strong partnership.

Newly:  It would have been a different history entirely without the ropes and the fences.  It’s not really a partnership,  is it, if only one of us knows how to tie a knot and open a gate?

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The outside of Newly trotting through endless fields of lupine. On the shores of Folsom Lake this spring.

Me:  I’ll show you how to open the gate later.

Newly: Will I be using my opposable hooves?  Oh, wait.  I don’t have opposable hooves.

Me:  You can thread a needle with that upper lip of yours.  You’ll figure it out.  I wanted to ask you about the proverb:  ‘Show me your horse, and I will tell you who you are’.  Can you tell anything about people by their horses?

Newly:  That’s an interesting way to look at it.  I can tell a lot about horses by their people.  If I see someone running a thin, wheezing horse nearly to death on the trail, with equipment that leaves sores, with heavy hands, flopping body weight and big spurs, I know that I’m in the presence of a very sad horse.  When I see someone who is being steered under low-hanging branches, stepped on, bitten, kicked at, I know I’m looking at a spoiled horse.  If  I see a person riding a horse with all kinds of silver trim on its tack, clean as a whistle from its blanket and stall, pooping out really expensive hay and vitamin supplements, I know I’m looking at a very wealthy horse.

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More Newly and lupine.

Me:  Why DO you let us do things like, say, coaxing you into a little box on wheels for transport, or climbing on you to ride after having strapped the hides of other dead animals on your back?  And dressage?  I mean, I can’t believe that some horses consent to essentially dance ballet.  You horses are bigger than we are, faster than we are, and stronger than we are.  Why do you do it?

Newly:  Well, I think most horses are basically agreeable creatures.  We start out giving the benefit of the doubt.  We are gentle plant-eaters, with big, silly teeth and no claws.  I think horses are a very strange combination of terrified and trusting.  It doesn’t take much leverage to bring us to our knees, mentally or physically.  There will always be people who will figure out how to take advantage of that.  I don’t know why, but that’s the way we were made.

Me:  Lucky for us.  You gave us a tremendous leg-up, so to speak, as a hunting and war-fighting species.  Not so lucky for you horses sometimes.

Newly:  Yes.  I think humans are lucky that we are not carnivores.  We would rule the world.  Speaking of which, is that a new mare in the neighbor’s pasture?  I’ve never seen herbivore.

Me:  When I first met you, you had just stepped off a transport truck and were being walked up my driveway for the first time.   I’d bought you sight unseen, based on a lot of nice people who knew you, and the fact that you are a Rushcreek Arab, which is something pretty special.


Newly’s Ruschcreek brand. This mark says a lot about who he is and what all went into making him the horse he became. It tells a story of a wonderful chapter in the history of American horse breeding.

I’d been waiting for you all day, and I thought you were the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen, walking up that driveway.  What did you think when you first saw this place?

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Newly, all his belongings in a cardboard box…

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…arriving via transport service to start his new life.

Newly:  I thought:  ‘I wonder what time they serve dinner here.’

Me:  Seriously?  That’s all you were thinking?

Newly:  Well, look at it from my point of view.  When you are a horse, and you are bought and sold, suddenly your whole life changes.  You don’t have a say in anything.  It’s completely the luck of the draw.  Will I ever see my family, my old pasture mates again? Will I be beaten?  Will I be neglected?  Will I be forced to run until some part of me breaks, and then left to die a languishing death, covered with flies, malnourished and suffering in some pasture somewhere?  Animals don’t have control over any of it.  So I just concentrate on dinner.

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Newly, eating dinner in his new home immediately upon arrival. Carrots, soaked beet pulp, grass hay. Equine comfort food.

Me:  I see your point.  If it’s any consolation, you can stay here forever.

Newly:   Well, if they ever need me back on the ranch, I would like to go there.  That’s a nice place.  I’m supposed to be wandering and eating all day.  Anything else isn’t very natural for me.  You can do that at the ranch.  Look, you can come with me, if you don’t talk too much.

Me:  That’s nice.  I have really appreciated the opportunity to ask you some questions.

Newly:  I answered a lot of the uninteresting ones after all.

Me:  Well, I have just one more.

Newly:  Okay.

Me:  Newly, why the long face?  Ha ha ha ha!  Get it?  ‘Cause horses have — Newly, come back.  Get back here.  Whoa, boy.  Come on.  I’m sorry!  Newly!  Neeewwwllly!



In which you do NOT die…because there are things you must eat.

 By Elizabeth Speth


I love lists.  I really do. I love the lists I make — several every day — as well as the lists upon which I stumble.  They have the most marvelous way of prioritizing things.  Streamlining.  Directing.  Funneling our energy.

How often in life do we get the loud and clear message:  First, do this. 

Then, do this. 

And so on, and so on, and so on.  Without lists, life is ambiguous.  With them, we have a mission.  Broken down into manageable sections.

Our lists say a lot about us.  They reveal our aspirations, as well as the things we cast aside.  Show me your grocery list, your To-Do column, and I will tell you who you are.

If ever you want me to do something, put it in a list format and I’m your huckleberry.

Recently, I was browsing a favorite web destination, the Huffington Post’s Taste section.  And I found (cue long drumroll and then angel music):  The List To End All Lists.

It is called:  25 Things To Eat Before You Die.

This is a win-win-win-win list.  It involves many of my favorite things.  First:  Lists.  Second:  Eating.  Third:  Food, prioritized.  Four:  Something To Do Other Than Dying.


Without further ado, let’s get started.

Number one item is: Chocolate Chip Cookies from Levain Bakery  .   Never having heard of this place, I had to look it up.  It is A Thing.  A Very Serious Bakery.  You can find one in Harlem, one in the Hamptons, and one in New York’s Upper West Side.  A gift box of four Levain cookies retails for $27. Plus shipping if you buy them on-line.  Obviously, based on the price, and on the website pictures of several tiny angels hoisting one of these miraculous cookies toward heaven, these are The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies In The World.  Obviously, we have to have them.  We have to travel to one of these Levain bakeries, or order them on-line.  But first we have to save some serious cashola.  Or take out a second mortgage.  Or wait for a significant inheritance.

Now, this is where you do NOT despair.  This is a gastronomic bucket list.  If it were easily dispensed with, death would be imminent.  Right?  Think about this for a moment:  You are not allowed to die until you eat these things.

Take your time on this.  Please.

Second item on the list:  Sweetbreads.  You know what that is, right?  It’s not a variety of rolls and loaves sprinkled with sugar.  We’re talking calf or lamb glands.

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Sweetbreads can look something like this. They can be served with artichokes, potatoes, and a lovely tomato compote. We can do this. We just need a little time to work up to it.

Don’t cringe.  We have to trust The List.  Have a little faith here.  If it takes you a few years to work up the nerve, no worries.  You’ve got a lot of living to do yet.

Item number three:  A roast chicken that you make in your own oven.  This, my friends, is so easy.  I’ve already done this for you.  Please check out my recent blog post:

Four is:  The Lobster Roll.  This is a very beautiful thing.  Ideally, you should travel to Maine for this.  If you cannot, it is a very easy thing to make for yourself.  Check out my favorite recipe for this, from Ina Garten:

We are talking lobster here, and fresh dill, mayonnaise, capers, a crisp roll.  Beer.

But really?  Go to Maine.  There is time.

Next item:  Real ramen, not from the package.  So, not those little plastic-wrapped, freeze-dried bricks starving college students are famous for being able to afford.


This seems like a very worthwhile thing to eat, doesn’t it?  Since Ramen is a Japanese dish, and this is one of 25 dishes standing between you and death, you obviously have to go to Japan to have this wonderful combination of fish broth, onions, noodles, eggs, pork, seaweed and heaven knows what else.

In the meantime, to tide you over during your very long life while you are waiting to eat ramen in Japan, do what my son does.  Spend a few cents on one of those freeze-dried bricks.  Any flavor.  Follow package directions.  Add anchovy paste, minced seaweed, fresh shrimp or beef or chicken, hot chili oil, chopped scallions.  Just a few minutes before you serve, gently crack an egg into the bubbling broth and let it poach.  Ladle the ramen into a bowl, pierce the egg with a spoon and let its yolky contents run amok over everything else.  Slurp.  Dream of Tokyo.

Number five is:  Beignets at Cafe Du Monde.


You can buy a mix for this.  You can find the recipe online.  Don’t do it.  Life is short enough as it is.  Grab yourself some beads and a mask, and go to New Orleans.  No rush.

Moving steadily along to the next item:  Raclette .

This confused me, a bit.  It appears to be a heaping pile of cheese.  Swiss cheese.  Melted over an open fire and piled onto whatever you already happen to be eating.  Potatoes.  Maybe with pickles and cured meats.  It’s got to be good, because the Swiss are very proud of it.  As I sit here in front of my computer in America, something is lost in the translation.  I’ve got nothing against melted cheese — I love it — but this is apparently something special.  Melted cheese to the nth degree.  Hence, we must go to Switzerland.  Clearly.   Whenever it is a good time to do so.  No hurry.

I love what’s next on the list:  French Fries with home-made mayonnaise. I love French Fries.  I love home-made mayonnaise, which is so simple I don’t know why you don’t make it every day.  Add herbs.  Garlic.  Spices. Customize it.

Maybe the fries should be home-made too.  Yes.  I think they should be.

Here is a recipe:

This (discreet burp!) is fun.  Carrying on:

Pimento cheese, aka ‘the caviar of the south’. It appears to be grated sharp cheddar, mayo and pimentos. In most of the recipes I see, it is pictured alongside Ritz-type crackers. I dunno about this.  It does not appeal.  Perhaps we can get a Papal Dispensation to skip this one, and double up on something else on the list. If I’m wrong, and it’s worth having, I at least exhort you to use the last of the home-made mayonnaise (see above).

Up next:  Hot roasted chestnuts. I made these last year. They were good, rich, slighty suggestive of a macadamia nut, but very much less than that in terms of flavor. I suspect it is more the experience of warming your hands on a newspaper cone of them as you walk through the streets of London. Or Paris. So I’m going to suggest a side of London or Paris streetscapes at twilight with this dish.

All right…what’s next?

Ah.  Ceviche.

Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes indeed. This is marvelous, and there are so many south American and Mexican variations on this theme, all wonderful. There are entire restaurants devoted to the beauty that is ceviche. The main point is seafood, cooked only with an acid component like lemon or lime juice. Add herbs, toasted pine nuts, onions, avocado… Slightly charred tortillas or other flatbread. Beer. Shots of tequila. Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes. Indeed.  You must eat this many, many, many times before you die.  On the beach.  In the rain.  On a train.  In a box,  with a fox…  But I digress.

Speaking of green eggs and ham, the next to-do on the 25 is breakfast at a diner. Any diner. Okay. Well, you’ve likely already done this, but it doesn’t count, because you didn’t know it was a Do Before You Die.  So do it over.

I, personally, don’t get excited about diners.  My husband, Neil,  is passionate about diner breakfasts. On our very first date, we went to a diner.  Where he would not allow me to order my own cup of coffee.

“We’ll share,” he whispered, leaning conspiratorially across the table.  “Free refills.”  Reader, I married him.  I married him in spite of this.

Again, I think this is an atmospheric thing. I believe in simply prepared food, but diners are about cooking eggs in vegetable grease, and margarine on your thin toast, and corned beef hash from a can. Your gravy will likely come from a can too. Your hollandaise sauce may well have originated in an envelope of powder. I’ve given you the ammunition to wreak this havoc at home, but just get thee to a diner, and get it over with for $1.99. As a side dish…er…note, I imagine the appeal of this food improves dramatically just before or during a hangover. So maybe plan ahead, over-do it a bit on the tequila accompanying the ceviche, and kill two birds with one stone.

Up next:  Hot stone bowl bibimbap. This sounds very much like something a hobbit would eat for third breakfast before setting out to recover lost jewelry.  Not so.

This is a beloved Korean dish, a bowl of mixed rice with  meat and vegetables.  It sounds wonderful.  Go to Korea.  Eat this.

Did you save room for dessert?  Well, we’re not there yet.  You have to next eat the Stone Crab at Joe’s Stone Crab.  Where the mustard sauce is apparently to die for. You will have to go to Miami Beach, Florida.  Also, order the Key Lime Pie.  Everyone says to.

I love the next item on the list.  Strawberries picked fresh from the field. There are strawberry fields all over near my home in Loomis, Ca. The fresh strawberry stands pop up in early spring, and those berries are very fine, albeit it a bit tart and restrained. They are wonderful macerated in a bit of balsamic vinegar, sugar and pepper, and served over vanilla ice cream. I’m not kidding.  About a tablespoon of very good balsamic, an eighth of a teaspoon of pepper.  Sugar.  Let it sit for a bit.

However, to really appreciate the lush, wanton, sensual pleasure of a strawberry from the field, wait until a few weeks after the really hot weather sets in. Heat does something to the sugar in the berry. You can smell it for miles in the summertime. All good things come to those who wait. Add nothing to these berries but your teeth.  Eat with abandon.  Life is short.

Home-made fresh whipped cream is on the list.  This is too easy.  It makes me uncomfortable, inching us ever closer to our mortality.

We love whipped cream in my house.  Never out of the can or plastic tub.  It has to be the real thing, with a little powdered sugar and vanilla, whipped just until stiff peaks form.  My boys grew up eating it plain by the bowl.  My daughter loves it layered with chocolate cookies that grow soggy if left to sit in fridge for a few hours.  For a little bit of a lark, add Grand Marnier and a little grated orange rind.  Stack it between layers of cake, fruit and more liquor and call it Trifle.  I can’t help you delay this one.  You are going to cross it off your list pretty quickly and easily, I’m afraid.  Vaya con dios, my friend.

Next please.

Ah, Lardo. There you are.

Lardo is not an unimaginative pejorative term for someone who is rotund, despite what my classmates called me in school. This is Italian cured back fat, and it is a fabulous appetizer. You want to hold it in your mouth forever, but it melts away too quickly. Don’t be squeamish about the fat. You’ve likely got some of your own, so no throwing stones. Eat with crusty bread and cheese, maybe some olives.  A very robust Chardonnay, or a lovely rose. Maybe some fresh herbs and nuts.  A light Pinot might work, too.  Eat the lardo. Drink the wine. In Italy.  Let the sun bake the last of the day away while you chew and sip outside, and slip into a twilight coma of bliss. You will forget about moving on to dinner. That’s okay.  You have your whole life to eat dinner.

An avocado in its shell, with only a spoon. Huff recommends Hass. I, personally, never met an avocado I did not like. It’s green, earthy butter.  Close your eyes while you let it glide across your taste buds.  Show some respect.

Pancakes with real maple syrup. That’s easy. Just be prepared to shell out some money for the maple syrup. Brattleboro, Vermont is my favorite terroire for maple syrup. Chew slowly.  We’re getting near the end of the list, and I, for one, do not have my affairs in order.

Home-made ricotta cheese. Why haven’t you done this yet? The hardest part of making your own is finding cheesecloth for the recipe. Here it is:


So stinkin’ easy. Drizzle the cheese with honey, serve with fruit. Figs are best. Thank me later.

Steak tartare. This is raw meat. Good quality raw meat. Some recipes call for raw egg in the preparation.  I’m a vegan, but I’ll have to do this, obviously, when I am ready to die, or I won’t be allowed to. So do it I will. My grandmother, who remains the cook I admire most in this world — I learned everything I needed to learn about food fundamentals at her apron strings by the time I was twelve, and everything after that was just fleshing out what she taught me — loved raw beef. She would sometimes down a bit of raw hamburger meat while cooking. I won’t do that, but I understand that for some folks this is a big draw. I respect that.

Chocolate croissant from Tartine Bakery, San Francisco. That’s easy for me to say. I live in Northern California. But it’s cheaper (for me) than a trip to France, and Huffington Post swears these are better than the French make. There is, apparently, often a line out the bakery door and down the street, and they come with a good helping of attitude from the staff behind the counter, according to one reviewer.

A loaf of bread from Sfoglia Bakery. Easy for you to say. If you live in New York City. It’s nearly ten dollars a loaf. It must be good. Get a loaf, eat all ten dollars’ worth while you stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is one of my favorite places on earth. Get three loaves. It’s going to take you at least three days to get through the Met.

Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Well. Duh. Campbell’s and Kraft slices and even Wonder Bread are just fine for childhood, or any day you need to revisit childhood. Give yourself permission. If, however, you are feeling like a grown up, roast the tomatoes with sea salt and then make the soup with good cognac. Use brioche for the sandwich, and chutney and brie and Gruyère. And butter. You’ll be fine. You’ll be better than fine.


Tamales. Well. This is a labor-intensive effort. But make no mistake — it is not a labor of love. In my native Santa Fe family, I remember the women working together to assemble these in mass quantities.  While the men stood around and drank beer.  So the women invariably complained about the men, comparing notes, working themselves into a bit of frenzy as they cushioned beautiful masa around slow-cooked pork and beef, wrapping it all in corn husks as austere as the robes of our priests.

These must be home-made. In my family, we turn them out every Christmas, and top them off with just-simmered mole sauce. My husband is smart enough to stay in the kitchen and help.  However, if your tamales are plunked down a bit brusquely in front of you at mealtime, if you are glowered at and told tersely to enjoy them, you are likely a man, and you are likely in trouble.

And now, we come to the moment of reckoning.  The end of the list.  I have a few things I’d like to add (raw oysters, my grandmother’s Eggplant Parmesan, my grandmother’s Cioppino, fresh wild figs plucked quickly from a tree as you pass under it on horseback), but no one asked me.

I still (whew!) have a few items on this list I have not checked off.  Eight of them, in fact.  I am eight items away from the hereafter.

And you? How many of these stand between you and your ultimate reward?

Check, please.


Traveling. To Where We Know Not.

By Elizabeth Speth

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“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard

The college road trip, it turns out, is a sort of rite of passage for parents and their offspring. A lot of people do it, and the experience is crammed tighter than a trunk full of suitcases with opportunities for life analogies.

None of which occurred to me as I packed a rental car for a five-hour trip south with my youngest, Leland. I had other things on my mind.

Like getting lost. I mean that literally, not figuratively. I am easily disoriented. I have Directional Dyslexia. I still, after twenty years, get turned around in my small town. I go the wrong way between the bathroom and the kitchen sometimes. Stopping to figure it out only makes it worse. I wasn’t born with that bird’s-eye view in my head so many people seem to have. I’m stuck on the ground in a maze of tangled possibilities, and I invariably choose the wrong one.

My husband had thoughtfully printed out directions for me — a sheaf of papers outlining how to get from our house in Loomis, California to our motel in Morro Bay. How to get from the motel to Leland’s possible future home for the next four years. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, some twelve miles inland from our lodging.

The thought of simultaneously driving and shuffling through those papers, my son a tight coil of unhappiness in the seat beside me, deepened my anxiety.

Leland does not want to go. My poor son is conflicted, which is a testament to his very open heart, and my own aches for him.

He knows he will be homesick, from time to time. He is going to miss his friends. He’s had a great childhood here, in a prosperous community built around a lake, and football, and family, and doing-the-right-thing-or-someone-is-going-to-call-your-parents-before-you-get-home-because-we-are-all-looking-out-for-you-son. He’s loved the independence of being a young man here.

The thing that grieves him most, though, is the impending separation from his girlfriend Kris, arguably his best friend, a young woman we all love too. I don’t dismiss their love (a year or so old) as merely young, which it is, or likely transient, which it may well be. They have a very fine friendship, and they rely on each other. They are loyal, companionable, relaxed, frequently silly with each other. I often hear their laughter from the other side of the house. Individually, they are decent, strong, loving, kind individuals. Together, they comprise a structure with integrity. I admire it, and I am so glad for them. Glad they have a safe place to learn about love. I hope they each have a long life full of loving relationships after such a great start.

Now they will learn about the barbed side of such vulnerability, though. There is always, always the pain of parting. Eventually, it will happen. Every connection gets severed by either logistics or time, and where love once flowed freely there is massive hemorrhaging.

So, as I look at his profile in the car, farmland whizzing by behind him, his eyes focused inward and not on the road ahead, I bleed a little too.

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We listen to his music. He plays a great selection. The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons. Hip-hop and rap he knows I’ll like. It makes the hours fly by.

“I’m sparing you the really bad stuff,” he informs me. “Some of it is pretty rough.”

I appreciate that. We stop for food, take turns driving. He laughs, not unkindly, at my sheaf of directions, which falls to the floor under his feet as he programs our destination into the GPS on his iPhone. Periodically our music is interrupted by a soothing electronic female voice telling us to bear right, to turn left in a quarter mile. The voice seems concerned when we stop for a bathroom break or deviate in any way from the plan. It insists on our course with something that sounds like anxiety until we are back on track.

It was that easy. Just like that, Leland has assumed the job of navigating for us. The reversal of roles hits me profoundly.

An enormous weight relinquishes its perch on my shoulders. My lungs expand, the road opens, the light lifts. My mental cloud clears. Which leaves me free, now, to contemplate an impending good-bye of my own.

I remember when Leland was an infant. A few days old, and in the hospital with meningitis. It was one of the darkest periods of my life. Would he survive? Would there be lasting damage to his brain, his hearing, his body? He was running out of places to stick needles. There was so little of him, after all. He wailed. He looked harassed, fevered, agonized. He had an IV in his head. How could such a tiny body house such a large threat?

The cord of attachment between us was already as wide and thick as it could be, and the thought of its severing fatal. I stayed with him in his hospital room for ten days, nursing him, willing him back to health by the sheer force of maternal imperative. When his nurses occasionally coaxed me to step outside, go for a walk, clear my head, I was filled with panic as soon as the hospital doors slid closed behind me in the brilliant, foreign sunlight. I turned around and went right back in. I did not want him to slip away from me. What if we were destined to have each other for only a very short time? I couldn’t spare a minute of it clearing my head. My head was plenty clear. I knew where I belonged.

As it turns out, we do only have each other for a very short time. A year. Eighteen years. Eighty years. All of it passing as quickly as the sweet fragrance of orange blossoms among the orchards lining Interstate 5.  The car is briefly filled with it.

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We reach our motel late. It is not a promising sight. They’ve left the key under the mat, and the room is dated, musty. Leland contemplates the array of possible body fluids on the plastic bedspreads. But he is smiling. We take turns brushing our teeth, slip beneath sheets and a blanket thin as Kleenex. We listen to sea lions barking throughout the night, rise before dawn and head out in search of breakfast.

In a small cafe, watching the sunrise over Morro Rock and a small fleet of sailboats, we eat a very good breakfast.

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We find the campus, which is a warm and comforting place. Some of it is old, and very agricultural. Many of the buildings are soaring and modern and new. We tour the business college. We like the faculty very much. We look at the dorms. I see Leland’s face clouding over and know it’s time for lunch.

We share an enormous platter of raw oysters, happily slurping (this vegan brakes for oysters once a year or so) together. We talk a little about the future, about the difficulty of sacrificing in the short term for the long-term. We agree to leave it for a week or two, let his subconscious gnaw away at a resolution while he enjoys the last months of his senior year. We take a long walk on the beach, pack up our things and head home.

We have had an excellent, complicated time together.   My son is a first-rate companion for any journey.

We follow a sure navigational path home as the sunset fills the car windows with fleecy pink. I listen to the lyrics that occupy my son’s head these days, hear them articulate how wonderful and difficult and unclear life can be.

I try to have a little faith.

I hope his road is a long and interesting one.

Through open-hearted territory.

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