Monday, December 31, 2007

Barbaro in 2007

As the calendar page turns, there is an interesting thread on Alex Brown's web site that considers the impact that Barbaro has had on his readers' lives. The entries are moving. Most mention the inspirational quality of Barbaro's journey. They write about his courage, grace under pressure, ability to make those that cared for him feel appreciated. They speak of his dignity and marvel that a horse that few of them ever met, had the ability to touch so many lives.

The Fans of Barbaro also appreciate and admire the people who made Barbaro's fight possible: Dean Richardson, his surgeon, Gretchen and Roy Jackson, his owners and Edgar Prado, his jockey. They recall the parties they sponsored for all the employees at New Bolton to express their appreciation for their care of Barbaro.

Most say that their lives were forever changed by meeting others who cared about Barbaro and by following the details of his journey.

I wonder what this says about us? That we, as a species, remain incredibly touched by animals, especially those who rely on us for their survival. That we need the company of others who share our beliefs. And that the Internet, often maligned as a tool for social isolation, is also a conduit of support and friendship to those who are physically isolated from others who share their beliefs. Surely all of the above and more.

For me, the Barbaro saga has given me access to some of the most dedicated, passionate and talented people I have ever met. It has also rekindled my childhood fascination with horses and introduced me to the the plight of those who are abandoned. Of course it has also opened doors in the publishing world that were hard to crack--and remain only partially open--and given me some pats on the back. I have made some lifelong friends and been a part of some great stories.

And so as 2007 winds down, I find myself curious about how my adventure plays out and surprisingly willing to hang in there, perhaps with less of my entire being invested than when I started, and more with a sense of invested detachment, if such a sentiment exists.

I hope you will hang in there with me. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Happy 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

My Year with Barbaro

We're approaching the end of the year so I thought I would look back at some of the memorable Barbaro-related moments that I covered as part of my research for this story.

High on the list would have to be going to the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, KY on the day after Barbaro was euthanized. I happened to be in Kentucky doing research and had scheduled a tour of Churchill Downs with Tony Terry, the PR guy in charge of the Derby before Barbaro's sudden turn for the worse. It turned out to be a fascinating place to be. Fans were streaming in leaving bouquets of flowers at the feet of the horse statue in the museum painted to replicate Barbaro, the current Derby winner. It was a freezing day and even more chilling standing in the paddock where Barbaro's name joined the names of all the other Derby winners that are painted on the proscenium around the area. There was also a steady stream of visitors to the graves of those horses who are buried at the museum and great speculation as to where Barbaro would be buried. (To my knowledge, this has still not been determined.) Inside the museum, there is an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to view any Kentucky Derby race in history. I must have listened to the call of Barbaro's race over 100 times that day as fans lined up to replay his victory. I took special note of the sign the museum staffers had added to the neon display outside the theater that showed the Derby movie: Barbaro, Thanks for the dream.

On April 29, 2006, over 600 Fans of Barbaro gathered at Delaware park to celebrate what would have been Barbaro's fourth birthday. These were all people who had never met in person but who had forged strong relationships on the internet via Alex Brown's web site. Roy and Gretchen Jackson were in attendance as were representatives from both New Bolton Center and Fair Hill, including Barbaro;s groom Eduardo. I remember doing an interview with Eduardo, who speaks very little English, using the translation services of a Fan of Barbaro that I had just met, who happened to be from England and spoke fluent Spanish. It was a joyful day at which several movies about Barbaro were screened, including the NBC documentary that aired a week later. It is safe to say, there was not a dry eye in the tent when that video ended. These are amazing people, deeply committed to each other and to the legacy of a horse that brought them all together.

A few months later, I was invited by New Bolton Center to attend the screening of the HBO documentary about Barbaro. This was a fabulous event. All of the "luminaries" in the documentary were there, from the equine ambulance drivers to the doctors and nurses who treated Barbaro and it was great to put faces with names. Prior to this, I had been invited to New Bolton Center when Amy Gutman, Penn's president came to speak a few weeks after Barbaro's demise, and the grief was palpable. Anyone who ever thinks that the veterinary profession is not deeply connected to their patients had only to see and hear Dean Richardson break down during a slide show of Barbaro in happy times. It was clear that the experience of caring for this horse was emotionally wrenching for everyone connected with New Bolton Center. It may have been a pain for them to work around all the publicity but it was also a privilege. Some of that grief was still there at the HBO screening, but it was clear that the mood was improving.

Through all of the year, I kept in constant touch with Gretchen and Roy Jackson and my contacts at New Bolton Center. I only wanted to do enough research to be able to write the proposal from a position of authority--not enough to write the book. I think it will be extremely interesting to go back, if and when this proposal ever sells, and interview all these players now that even more time as passed. My guess is that stories that they might not have told me then may be more important now.

I'm heading to Florida for a week and will post from there. I hope to go to the races, ideally on a day when Michael Matz (Barbaro's trainer) is running a horse and catch up with him.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Teeth to the Grindstone

Every once in a while I consider all the inventions that have revolutionized my life. Cell phones, computers (word processing, in particular--remember typewriters?), the Internet are certainly right up there. But yesterday, after a long afternoon in the dentist's chair, I place Novocaine and the high speed dental drill pretty high on the list.

On Wednesday evening, I broke half a tooth eating salad of all things. The tooth had a huge filling and half of it broke right off--on the inside of my mouth which was lucky since it would have looked pretty awful. An emergency call to the dentist resulted in a late afternoon appointment yesterday where I knew I was in for a lot of drilling. I've done this before.

Suffice it to say the activity required three shots of Novocaine and a bit of emergency gum surgery since the tooth broke close to the gum line. All of which was painless, thanks to Novocaine. All things considered, it was fairly quick as well.

Today my mouth is very sore--as he promised it would be--but functional. I could not even imagine having these procedures performed without Novocaine.

Horses need dental attention as well. Their teeth have to be shaved down to accommodate the bit and an abscessed tooth in a horse needs prompt attention. In fact, horses have been known to lose races due to issues with their teeth and mouths that are usually only discovered after the fact. Veterinary dentistry is an important specialty. Its fair to say that teeth and feet are the cause of the majority of medical problems in horses and it is probably no coincidence that hoof and mouth disease is viewed as a major epidemic.

So as much of an annoyance as it is, dentistry in humans and animals has come a long way in doing what it does best--save teeth. For that, I, for one, am extremely grateful.

Friday, December 28, 2007


The recent issue of Blood Horse magazine, thoroughbred racing's trade magazine, recounts the top horse stories of the year. What is interesting is that nearly two years ago (2006), Barbaro was thoroughbred racing's top story (the Barbaro team won a special award for this at the Eclipse awards in January 2007. This year, 2007, Barbaro continued to dominate racing's headlines well into February.

As Blood Horse reports: "Though he was euthanized in January, the top story in the industry the following month was still Barbaro. The beloved winner of the Kentucky Derby......had broken down in the 2006 Preakness Stakes and fought valiantly until finally a battle with laminitis would claim his life. He was a national news story for months."

The timing of Barbaro's injury, surgery and ultimate demise transposed two calendar years and made him a national force as one year ended and the next began. Last year at this time, the news was still good--there was talk of moving Barbaro from New Bolton to a Kentucky Horse farm where he presumably would spend his days surrounded by bus tours of fans. The atmosphere was hopeful as all the major players in the story took off for various retreats during the week between Christmas and New Year.

It is hard to believe that I have been involved with this story for almost two years.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Great Debaters

We saw another feel good movie last night; The Great Debaters. I'm a sucker for true stories with inspirational endings (gee, could this be what attracted me to the Barbaro saga?) and this one is right up there. Denzel Washington is the faculty advisor/coach of a debate team in the 1930s at an all black college in Marshall Texas. Needless to say the team takes on great obstacles and conquers all, proving that words can be great weapons.

A couple of interesting sidelights; our local news ran an interview with the woman who was on the team. She is 96 years old, remembers everything, and is, I believe, the only surviving member of the original team. Second, we in the Northeast of a certain age, did not experience the Jim Crow South in its hey day and this movie spares no punches. There is a lynching and a raid on a meeting of share croppers rumored to be organizing into a union. There is the requisite white sheriff and a brief appearance by the Texas rangers. It is not pretty; in fact it is very frightening.

The movie depicts the quiet presence of the intellectual African American tradition (whites, by the way, are referred to as "Anglo-Saxons"), that ultimately spawned the Civil Rights movement, led by one of the great orators of our time, Martin Luther King, Jr.

The power of words--a powerful message, especially in a time when it seems, like it must have then, that no one is listening.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Technical Difficulties

When I started this blog (well, actually about a week after I started), I also pasted a tracking code courtesy of Google Analytics into the html portion of the website. I should tell you that it took me quite a while to figure out exactly where to post this code and even longer to actually do it, but I did it, as the message "Receiving Data" indicated on my Google Analytics page. The idea was that by posting this code, I could track who was reading this blog, where they were from and how they were getting to the site. Very cool tools, all for free.

And indeed it was very cool because about 24 hours after I successfully pasted that code, I began receiving data. I checked in periodically to see how many hits the site was getting and soon had generated enough data for Google Analytics to even prepare nice little pie charts with my readership. Not that the numbers were earth shattering--maybe 50 or 60 hits a day at first which generally settled into about a dozen a day on a routine fairly routine basis. Some days more; some less, but always some.

Then a weird thing happened around the end of November: the data stopped. The Google Analytics info always revealed 0 hits. Well, I thought to myself, maybe they are a week or so behind, because the overall graph was still showing the data from the early weeks of the blog. In other words, it wasn't a flat line. Then I forgot to check for a while and when I did check in last week, I noticed that according to Google Analytics, the blog was dead and had been so for some time. A flat line with no hits through the entire month of December.

All of which really was mystifying to me because I had been receiving holiday cards from far flung friends with wonderful comments about the blog. Plus I knew I checked it once a day myself so there had to be at least one hit. And I knew some friends were fairly loyal readers because they sent me emails about it. So what was going on?

Enter my Mac tutorial on Monday, part of the one on one series of tutorials I had signed up for. I brought all my sheets of info from Google Analytics about installing tracking codes and decided to let them figure it out.

And they did. Apparently Google, unbeknown to me, had changed tracking codes at the end of November. The old one that I had installed simply stopped generating data (which was very strange because when I logged onto my Google Analytics page it still said, transmitting date but that is another story...),and so a few clicks later (theirs, not mine), I was back in business.

All of which is a very long way of saying, hang in there. I should know relatively soon how many of you are reading this blog, which seems to be the second question people ask me. I'm not sure I am going to be able to recapture the missing December days, but I'll keep you posted.

It's always good to know you are not alone.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Alex Brown

Last year, Christmas Day was rainy, foggy and unseasonably warm. At about 1:00 PM, I got in my car and headed out to New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, PA, about a 45 minute drive. It was eerily quiet on the roads so I got there in record time. It was beginning to drizzle when I went into the reception area of the hospital.

Aside from the decorations, including a Christmas tree decorated in Barbaro colors (green and blue), the mounds of red and green peppermints and tables bursting with Christmas goodies, the hospital was fully operational. There were vans pulling up with nervous owners admitting sick horses, doctors bustling back and forth and one lone telephone operator on duty.

I checked in with her and settled in to wait for my interview. I was meeting Alex Brown, the web master of the Time Woolley Racing site that became the voice of the Fans of Barbaro and the source for all news about the celebrity patient who at that time was doing well. Alex had come in for the afternoon to walk Barbaro, hand graze him and groom him and we were scheduled to chat when he was finished. Although we had spoken many times on the phone, I had never met him in person and I was looking forward to meeting him. We chose Christmas Day because I knew he would be at New Bolton and it promised to be relatively quiet.

Alex Brown is a fascinating figure in the Barbaro tale. He is British and came over here about fifteen years ago to go to school. While earning an MBA at the University of Delaware, he also exercised race horses for his pal Tim Woolley who ran a modest training operation at Fair Hill. In between he worked at Wharton at the Univ. of Pa helping them set up their electronic admissions functions, linking alums and applicants from around the world. He is smart, quiet, insightful and loves horses--the essence of horses--and simply by being attentive and in the right place at the right time, launched what he calls a fascinating study of an internet based fan group, the Fans of Barbaro. To this group of Barbaro-maniacs, he is nothing short of God--no joke.

To me, Alex Brown is a wonderful friend and our friendship really took off last Christmas Day. He told me that Gretchen had told him about me--that I was the one she had chosen to write the book (this was before I had received a signed contract, so that was news to me)--and he pledged undying loyalty and access to all of his blogs archives, which are kept off site. He is incredibly sensitive and thoughtful and he does what he does out of nothing more than a love for a special horse, Barbaro and the sport of racing.

Today, Alex Brown is traveling around the country, gathering material for a book he plans to write about the Barbaro effect. He begins his story with Barbaro and then traces the origins of the grass roots movement that has become a political force in the anti-slaughter legislature. He still posts a blog that reads like a travelogue of his adventures racing across America. Yesterday he noted that the message board on his site had eclipsed 500,000 posts!!!! That is quite a fan base...(are you listening Madison Ave?)

So one year later, Alex and I are still plugging away, each determined in our own way to tell the story of this horse, and yet linked through the information network that he created. Dare I say, we both have books in us?

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Zen Master's Message

It's been a bit of a whirlwind around here with all three kids home and everyone flying off in various directions to reconnect with family and friends, so forgive this post if it seems a bit sleep deprived.

We did manage to see a good movie Saturday night, Charlie Wilson's War (with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), which I recommend. In particular, I was struck by one compelling vignette in which Hoffman, playing a CIA agent, recounts the "zen master's story." I would butcher it if I tried to paraphrase it, but the message is that things are not always what they seem. Or as the zen master says, "We'll see." Incidents that seem tragic at the outset sometimes turn out to be blessings in disguise and vice versa. Time is the determining factor in many outcomes and sometimes it takes a long time for the meaning to play out.

The point in question is the American intervention in Afghanistan which as we all know, came back to bite us, but at the time seemed like the right thing to do. The problem was that we didn't finish what we set out to do in the first place and our good intentions got lost in the shuffle.

And so how does this apply to the Barbaro story, one might ask facetiously? The moral may be to hang in there with the best of intentions and keep building the case for support. Or it may simply be that whatever happens will turn out to be for the best.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

False Alarm

In case you couldn't tell, we are in the lull between Christmas and New Year's when not much work gets done. So I don't expect to hear anything from anyone regarding the fate of my proposal until mid-January.

That said, imagine my surprise when I opened my email yesterday to find a message from Dzanc Press, the independent, non-profit press to which I sent my proposal, on a lark, a while back. I do remember writing them to ask when I might be hearing from them, yea or nay, and they told me it would be about four weeks. I did the calculations in my head and thought it must be at least four weeks since I had heard from them.

Anyway, I opened the message only to find that it was a fund raising letter. What a bust! It seems that this independent press is a non-profit for a very good reason. They fund a lot of literacy and writer in residence programs in the public schools and while they were tooting their horn regarding the books they had published this year, they were also asking for support of their non-profit mission. Fair enough, but nonetheless a heart thumping moment for naught...

Which actually brings me to another piece of correspondence I received via regular mail yesterday from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Charities, specifically the Barbaro Memorial Fund. Signed by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, it noted that the fund has raised more than $300,000 to date and underwritten two promising laminitis research projects. Naturally, they too were asking for my support.

Both are very good causes and I don't mean to sound like the proverbial Scrooge, but they have joined the ranks of literally hundreds of pleas for money that I have received via all airwaves--mail, internet and phone--over the last month and I am feeling a bit over tapped.

Yes, I know all about the end of the year tax incentive, but I wonder if it is also an effective means of fund raising in the grand scheme of things. Shouldn't these organizations be making more of an effort to find donors all year round than prey on our holiday spirit? Better yet, shouldn't we be feeling charitable all year round rather than just for a tax break in December?

Or am I merely being a grinch?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Brain Food

It's hard to argue with an activity that feeds your brain as well as the hungry people of the world. Check out the free rice web site and do both.

The premise is simple: play a multiple choice vocabulary game and for every correct answer, the organization donates grains of rice to a cyber bowl. You rack up bowls of rice as you improve your vocabulary. When you are finished the organization donates the rice you won, through the United Nations, to hungry people all over the world.

Be forewarned-some of these words are obscure (and this, coming from a crossword puzzle addict!) but there does not seem to be a penalty for getting the answers wrong, just an encouragement to try again.

I could see this as a great tool for classrooms of 10th and 11th graders trying to beef up their vocabularies before those standardized college tests. And who can argue with doing good for both body and soul?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Mental Stimulation

For those of you who are looking to expand your mental horizons in 2008, my son has clued me into the world of i-Pod U, a series of lectures and courses from major universities that are available for free on the i-tunes music store.

You don't even need an i-pod, you can listen to the lectures right on your computer, but an i-pod makes them portable--great for plane rides or long walks. I perused the offerings a bit last night and was impressed. MIT and Cal Berkeley are in the forefront of offering entire courses, in keeping with their open coursework philosophy. These schools were among the first to file share among peers so it makes sense that they are course sharing with the world. Others like Penn and Yale offer lectures from dignitaries that visit campus, and the Writers House at Penn has an interesting selection of talks from some prominent writers.

Stanford also has a most intriguing selection, including one that I plan on downloading for an upcoming plane ride about Hannibal crossing the Alps. Apparently it explains ones of the great mysteries of history: how Hannibal actually crossed the alps on elephant. If you've ever flown over or skied the Alps, you have got to be amazed at this accomplishment.

It is probably only a matter of time before more universities jump on this bandwagon. I know Princeton offered an on-line course (for $30!) this semester devoted entirely to reading War and Peace. The culmination of the class was a trip to NYC to see the recent Met production of the mega-opera. I was intrigued but never actually signed up.

This is another way that technology is changing the way we gather information and I think it's important to keep all channels open.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pet Care Extraordinary and Otherwise

I met with my program advisor yesterday at Penn to peruse the topic of veterinary ethics as it pertains to my thesis. It seems that everyone has a tale of extraordinary veterinary interventions and he is no exception.

It turns out that he has a relative who elected surgery for his hamster (yes, hamster!) for kidney disease. The surgery cost about $1000 and the hamster died a month later. An amazing story, to be sure, and perhaps one in which the vet should not have even offered such an option.

But then again, who am I to determine the "value" an individual places on their pet? Clearly this person's attachment to his hamster was far greater than the hamster's intrinsic cost or the person would not have brought the hamster to the vet to begin with. "Value," it seems, is clearly a subjective quality, and not tied to the animal's worth in the marketplace.

Which brings us to the topic of pet insurance, a commodity I don't hesitate to recommend to friends who are getting a pet. I learned the hard way--emergency surgery for one dog at 2:00 AM for which they wouldn't even call the vet until I wrote a check for $1250 on the spot; cancer for another and the various infirmities of old age for a third--that pet insurance eases the pain. For about $300 a year, you get covered for routine care, flea protection, heartworm meds. and a portion of major exploratory procedures. For me, it makes sense if only on a psychological level because I don't think twice about doing expensive procedures. I know I will get a portion of their cost reimbursed. The catch is to get the insurance when you get a puppy or kitten because there are no pre-existing conditions.

Does that mean I would do surgery on a hamster? I doubt it because I don't think my vet would recommend such a procedure. Which brings me to my second point: you need to develop a good relationship with your vet based on both of your reasonable expectations of care. I have known my vet for a quarter of a century and we have been through a lot together. She knows my limits and I think I know hers, but it has taken a while to develop this kind of shorthand. She has currently recommended a more aggressive treatment plan for my collie's limping (I think he pulled a muscle) than I would have pursued (acupuncture and referral to a specialist) because he is only 4. If he had been 14, I think we would have gone with medication. I am listening because she is right--it is one thing to be limping at 4 and another at 14, but there have been times when I haven't agreed and that seems to be OK with her.

So if you are getting or giving a pet this holiday season get and/or give pet insurance and a referral to a good veterinary hospital. Because little animals can generate big bills very quickly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

La Belle Patti

Patti La Belle has done more for Philadelphia than Ben Franklin, its favorite son! In her two nights on NBC leading the Philadelphia-based choir in the reality show, Clash of the Choirs, La Belle has turned into an icon before our eyes. Of course, she may have been a Diva before this, but she has now shown herself to be a Diva with Extreme Class.

The show, for those of you who have not channeled surfed recently is based on the audience voting premise. This time America votes for whichever choir they think has performed the best. There were six choirs to start--all made up of ordinary people from five cities, Houston, Cincinnati, New Haven, Philadelphia and Oklahoma City. Each choir is led by a celebrity (La Belle leads Philly; Michael Bolton leads New Haven, Nick LaChey leads Cincinnati, etc) and each is amazingly good in its own way.

LaBelle's choir, however, is easily in another league--they are that good. The clips show La Belle really teaching these people how to sing, enunciate and perform and boy do they deliver. Now who knows how much time LaBelle really devoted to this project and how much coaching was actually done by her music director, but regardless, these people are amazing.

LaBelle has gotten some bad press over the years in Philly, some of it for keeping a kennel full of dogs whose barking has drawn the wrath of neighbors, but she has never denied her roots. She is immortalized on a mural in North Philly; she performs at the 4th of July extravaganza on the Parkway and if her choir wins, the city gets $25,000 for charitable endeavors.

I'm a sucker for feel-good shows and this one really is mushy so if you don't like warm and fuzzy don't bother. But if good music, big dreams and encouragement are your thing, tune in tonight at 8:00 on NBC. The promos promise that the Divine Miss P is going to sing with her choir and, in my book, that is worth watching.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Fans of Barbaro

It is the time of year for reflection and the Fans of Barbaro (FOBs) are already beginning the countdown to the anniversary of their hero's death, January 29. The Director of Communications at the Vet School told me she had received numerous inquiries about what the school was planning to commemorate the event.

"Nothing," was what she told them. The Vet School is following the lead of the Jacksons who are trying to move on.

Not so the FOBs. So far, they are planning a cyber-vigil on the 29th and already dreading the day. Yesterday, which was week 46 since Barbaro's death (yes, they are most definitely counting), the postings were already up noting the sorrow that was still deep within many of them. Since Barbaro died on a Monday, each week begins with a remembrance. I think it is safe to say that many of these fans, who never met the horse or even saw him in person, are NOT moving on just yet.

They are, however, moving on with Barbaro's legacy, which is to save horses who are destined for slaughter. To date, the Fans of Barbaro have rescued 1500 horses, which is a truly amazing legacy. Many have made the trip to the New Holland, PA auction where the horses sold routinely end up being transported to slaughter houses in Canada and Mexico (I believe the ones in Texas are still shut down due, in part, to the continued efforts of the anti-slaughter groups). They rescue the healthiest ones with contributions from FOBs in response to cyber-pleas. It is truly a commendable and impressive undertaking.

The FOBs may still be mourning but they are also mobilizing. Their continued saga is one of the most fascinating parts of the ongoing Barbaro story.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Good Death?

The lectures at Penn last week explored the concept of the human-animal bond in greater depth. While the previous week had been all about quality of life, this topic was more about the impact of the animal's quality of life on its owner. As an illustration of the depth of this bond, the professor had the students write an obituary for one of their pets.

I could have written a small novel about my most recent dogs who have died, but these students were succinct and very touching. It was clear that most of them went into the field of veterinary medicine because they truly do love animals, large or small. Over time, I have to believe that the emotional impact of caring for sick animals becomes a challenge and I hope they remember the comforting words of these teachers. It is not an easy burden that they carry, especially when you figure in the topic of euthanasia. As many times as they hear that euthanasia translates from the Greek as "good death," it is nonetheless a tremendous responsibility to be able to deliver that death.

I believe that Dean Richardson is still feeling the effects of administering Barbaro's fatal cocktail. I know he believes it was the right and humane thing to do (there is no doubt in my mind that vets operate from the principle of ending suffering), but I also believe that he truly thought he could save the horse. I'm not sure what the moral of the story is: that we should or shouldn't play God, but I do know that the psychological implications of being able to end life, human or otherwise, are complicated and ones with which every vet has to grapple.

There is no other medical profession that literally has the power of life or death at its disposal and I wonder what it says about the way in which we view animals and the professionals who care for them.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Vanity Presses

I heard a very interesting story on NPR this week about Wallace Stegner, the acclaimed novelist and first Dean of Stanford's Journalism School. It seems that academia did not pay the young Stegner all that much and with a wife and young child to support, he supplemented his income with freelance projects.

One such project was writing corporate biographies, usually commissioned by the corporation. I'm not sure what year it was, but Stegner wrote once such biography for Aramco, the oil company. Apparently there were some disagreements about what kind of story he was to tell: a PR fluff piece or the inside story of oil deals, and while he was willing to do either (for his fee), the company never made a decision. As a result, Stegner wrote the book and the company shelved it for some fifteen years.

Recently an enterprising corporate communications person found the tome in some files and began printing it in excerpts in the company newsletter. It was such a success, (you'd have to believe this was the PR fluff version), that the company recently printed the book, much to the chagrin of the Stegner family, especially since Stegner went on to become one of the great environmentalists of his time.

Anyway, I tell you all this to point out that corporate biographies (which I too write) have been around forever and usually pay pretty well. It made me feel better to know that one of the great historian/novelists of our time did not find such work demeaning. I don't either, although the ones I write are most definitely client driven. That's not to say, they are not interesting stories--just that they are rarely objective.

Who knows? One day, those volumes on the history of Southern New Hampshire Medical Center or Staten Island University Hospital may become collector's items?!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tis the Season

If you are looking for a charitable endeavor this holiday season, the organization Reach Out and Read just might appeal to you. Since 1989, Reach Out and Read programs across the country have been promoting reading as a standard part of pediatric primary care.

The premise is simple: pediatricians, nurse practitioners and family physicians write a "prescription" for reading. They give books to their patients and tell parents that reading aloud is one of the most important things they can do for their children.

There are approximately 3500 Reach Out and Read organizations across the country and they are always in need of books, volunteers in waiting rooms and financial support. You can find out more at their website.

Another cause that might appeal to horse lovers is the Laminitis Fund at New Bolton Center. Barbaro died of laminitis, a deadly disease of the hoof that is very common among horses of all types. Roy and Gretchen Jackson endowed a Chair at Penn Vet to fund a national initiative to find a cure for this disease. You can support it at the Penn Vet School's web site where you could also make a contribution in memory of Barbaro.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Batting 1000?

One of the nicest things about being a writer is seeing your work in print. The nature of the industry is such that, unless you write for a newspaper, the lag time between handing in a story and seeing it in print is usually a few months. So it is always a nice surprise when I receive a bunch of "overs" (leftover copies) in the mail.

Yesterday I received the current edition of Family Business magazine. I wrote the cover story as well as a another feature inside and both look great, if I do say so myself. An unexpected pat on the back and a nice boost on an otherwise rainy, damp, cold day when I navigated some icy patches both en route to and returning from Penn.

The Penn lectures were once again extremely fruitful and I actually sat next to a reporter who is writing a book about dogs, One Nation Under Dogs, due out next year. He is a former newspaper reporter who landed a good book deal and was glad to get out while the getting was good. We struck up a nice friendship--another unexpected bonus of venturing out on a miserable day.

And in another twist of fate, my proposal has been sent off to Michael Smerconish's publisher, Globe Pequoit Press, a leading publisher of travel guides and pet books with a loyal following among horse lovers.

Perhaps three for three? Who knows?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Out of My Shell?

A few thoughts before I head back to Penn for my second series of lectures on veterinary ethics. Once again, ice and snow seem to be complicating the commute.

My return to the Genius Bar was a relative breeze. My life is now in sync--all machines are speaking to me and to each other and everything is backing itself up once a day in case of trouble down the line. In addition, I signed up for one-to one tutorials, once a week with the Mac creative Geniuses, as opposed to the techno whizzes, so look for some bells and whistles on this blog in coming weeks. At the very least I want to learn how these devices can make my life easier rather than more complicated, which is what seems to happen when they malfunction.

Which brings me to a question. How easy should it be for someone who is looking for me to find me? In our Google world, where every one's bio is just a click a way, should my contact info also be that accessible?

I have always been a bit of a turtle on this front, preferring to hide within the shell of protection offered by the editorial staffs of the magazines that employ me. It seems that if people are bent on finding me, they contact places where my articles have appeared and those people contact me. So far it has been a good arrangement and the "hunt" seems to dissuade those who are not genuinely interested in finding me.

Now I am not so sure. Since I am indeed, out here in cyber space on a regular basis, should I add my contact info to this blog? Its non-existence has been a deliberate oversight on my part to date.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Power of Talk Radio

I started reading Michael Smerconish and Maureen Faulkner's book, Murdered by Mumia, last night. We actually went to a local book signing for him and it was packed. Smerconish is certainly a master of public relations, a title he bestows upon himself in the Introduction. He acknowledges that it was too difficult for Maureen to write the story about her husband's murder by herself. Once he knew all the facts of the case, and how the media had distorted these facts, he volunteered to help tell her story. He knew it would sell, based on his previous track record--his last book, Muzzled, was a New York Times bestseller.

And how right he was--at least from what I have seen on a local level. Although I am not a devotee of his daily radio show where he has talked about this case for years and promoted this book for months, it certainly generates sales. Many people in line last night had already been to another Smerconish book-related event and were there to continue to lend their support to this project. It seems as if you either love Michael Smerconish or don't care for him. And if you love him, you do whatever he says.

I'm not that far along but I can tell you that he makes a convincing argument. The facts of the case are all in the book, including excerpts from the trial transcripts which Smerconish actually had posted on the web with the help of some of his listeners. It's easy to see why he was attracted to this story and why he felt compelled to get involved. Maureen Faulkner, an incredibly strong,principled woman was up against the world and was losing the battle. Smerconish is an equally principled person and when he stood up for decency and truth in the form of Maureen Faulkner he was also standing up for himself.

No wonder the guy is a public relations guru--how can you argue with truth and by extension how can you argue with him when he comes to represent truth?

Now, here's the $64 million question: how can I get him behind the Barbaro story? Because if he feels a story is worth telling, this guy never gives up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Geat Story

I did a fascinating interview yesterday with Peter Prichard, the President of the Newseum, a 250,000 square foot new museum on the Mall in Washington, devoted to the news. It is one of a new generation of museums, devoted to ideas (the Constitution Center in Philadelphia is another example) and its largest funder is the Freedom Foundation, a non partisan group that is dedicated to free speech, free press and free spirit for all people. Prichard is a Dartmouth grad which is where the profile will ultimately run.

The Newseum is scheduled to open this spring and promises to be an amazing place to visit. The collection includes five decades of front page newspapers, television archives of great newscasts and events and internet reporting. This is actually the second Newseum, the first having existed in Arlington, Virgina for five years (1997-2001). They moved to have a greater impact, which I predict will be accomplished rapidly. I think it will be a place I will have a hard time leaving.

Prichard is a career journalist, having tried just about all forms of newspaper reporting from sports to editorials as well as television production. He was the third editor in chief of USA Today, which is where he met the Newseum's visionary, Al Neuharth, the founder of the Freedom Foundation. Proving that life is once again about connections, Prichard told me his big career break came when he worked as a speechwriter for Neuharth during his term as president of the American Newspaper Publishers Association. They traveled to every state together since Neuharth had pledged he would speak in all fifty of them and Prichard drafted those speeches. The two formed a working relationship that remains to this day.

Toward the end of our conversation, Prichard asked me my story, which I told him in a nutshell. He didn't sound surprised about my current roller coaster ride through the publishing world--he is the author of a book about the founding of USA Today, but of course he had the credentials to write it--but he was surprised about the lukewarm reception to the Barbaro story itself. "It's a great story," he told me with all the conviction of a well-seasoned reporter. "Someone is going to grab it because great stories always sell."

I'd like to believe he's right.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Return to the Genius Bar

I now have my own personal Genius, John, who is only a phone call away. Small consolation when you discover that you can't open your documents, as I did yesterday. A voice on the other end of the phone who knows exactly what the issues are, is still reassuring, even when he can't solve them. (Note: Geniuses even work on Sunday). It seems that that my laptop and my desktop each have issues of their own and fixing one doesn't seem to help the other.

He basically got me up and running, although it is not ideal, and we scheduled an appointment for Wednesday afternoon.

The more I think about this Genius Bar, the more I believe it is a model for reform for the US Health Care System. The concept is based on affordable insurance with upgrades available for a price (Apple Care and Pro Care), knowledgeable practitioners who are trained, above all in customer service, collaboration and technical know how. They are dedicated to solving your problems because that is what they do. Ills are not equated with money--no money changes hands at the Genius Bar. The Geniuses seem to genuinely feel your pain and treat you and your machines with respect, dare I even say, tenderness?

I'm beginning to think someone should give each of the presidential candidates a malfunctioning Apple computer that requires them to spend a few hours at a Genius Bar. Whomever gets the message that people can be treated with competence and dignity, regardless of their circumstances, gets my vote.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Up and Running

In case you ever lose a cell phone you should remember this tidbit: technology has reached the point where missing cell phones, especially those with GPS built in, can indeed be located. There is something called triangulation, that requires the use of three cell phone towers. What was lost can be found but, of course, at the present time, there is a catch. Right now, triangulation requires a court order unless the missing phone is a matter of national security.

Mine clearly was not, so after canceling the original service so the lost phone would not be of any use to anyone else, except for its parts, which presumably could be sold on e-bay, I bit the bullet and bought a new one. An expensive bullet to be sure, but once you have embraced what's possible in terms of the i-phone, it really is hard to go backwards and settle for a phone (which I did contemplate when I found out I was eligible for a free upgrade that does not, of course, apply to i-phones).

Anyway, the point is I'm back in business and all is right with the world.

The moral of the story? Actually it's a pretty scary one in terms of how dependent I am on technology to hold all the pieces of my life together. But it turns out that I am not the one to whom this cell phone mattered the most.

In fact, once I got past the original "Oh, my God, I've lost an appendage," mode (which took about 12 hours), I was sort of getting used to not being "on call" 24/7. It turns out those who place those calls were not.

As I was literally setting up the new phone, syncing it with the mercifully saved data on the computer, it rang twice. The first call was from my husband, relieved to find me "back in business." The second was my son, delighted he could once again call me on my cell phone.

The moral may in fact be my husband's comments that my loss of cell phone had less to do with worry on my family's part that I was OK and more to do with their ability to find me when they needed something.

Hmmmmm.....I could always forget to turn it on.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Return to the Genius Bar

Yesterday I dutifully lugged my i-mac desktop to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store for my 20 minute appointment that was supposed to determine why the computer would not sync with the phone. At 4:15 PM, I left the store only to return 15 minutes later with my laptop to see if that would sync. At 6:00 PM., I went back only to be told to return at 8:00; they were getting close. At 8:30 PM I left the store with my two computers and went home.

Somewhere along the way, I managed to lose my i-phone (this was not a good day all around), made about ten new friends, earned new respect for the geniuses behind the bar and at the helm of Apple and moaned, cursed and cried about the technology that is supposed to hold all the pieces of my life together and was suddenly falling apart before my eyes, through no fault of my own.

There is indeed safety in numbers and the assorted other technology challenged bearers of laptops, i-pods, desktops and i-phones who came and went through the day for their scheduled appointments became my instant comrades, bemoaning my situation even as they rectified theirs. There were many dead or dying hard drives, some simple connection issues, one set of headphones that mysteriously worked in the store but not at home; a replacement for the i-pod that only played in one ear and yes, the ongoing case of my missing phone--which had mysteriously vanished somewhere between my car and the Apple store.

In the face of it all, the on-call geniuses (I actually went through 4 of them) were calm, understanding, helpful, supportive and never once condescending. They resurrected the files of the harried high school college advisor who had misplaced 70 of her advisees' college applications that mysteriously vanished when she tried to install a software update. They restored the files of a woman whose backup drive had quit, mid-backup. They even fixed my issues, patiently transferring data from one computer to the next until they could find the source of the problem.

And so I have wonderfully, clean well-functioning machines but no phone with which to test their new found powers.

One would think, said John, my new best friend, Genius Number 4, that if someone found it in this holiday season, they would call one of the numbers on it and try and track you down. Just the same, advised Andy, Genius Number 3, call AT&T and suspend your service in case they decided to call Nigeria.

So I'm holding out for another day-- feeling naked, missing an appendage and longing for my wonderful phone that did indeed change my life--once for the better and perhaps now, for the worse.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Veterinary Ethics 101

Yesterday was an eye opening, brain-stimulating day--the best kind. Frank McMillan's lectures on quality of life issue for animals were thought-provoking and informative. It was hard for me to believe that he spoke for over three hours--the time truly did fly by. The case studies he presented at the end with sample ethical dilemmas that the vet students would assuredly face in practice, were challenging and often heart-breaking. The students seemed to take it all in stride, often coming up with very creative solutions to complicated medical issues, always being careful to include the family of the pet in their decision making processes.

I was amazed at how much of the medical "lingo" I actually understood--perhaps a result of a lifetime of caring for dogs perhaps or just immersion in this veterinary world due to research.

I caught up with the Director of Communications at the Vet School for a quick lunch. Of course she wanted to know about the book's progress (or lack thereof?)and we explored a couple of options I have been kicking around in my head for pushing the material in a new direction.

One of the most interesting things she told me was that she still cannot make it through her presentation on Barbaro that she often delivers to other communication professionals without breaking down at the end. In fact, she got choked up talking about it--nearly a year later. That plus the fact that she realized that she will be forever branded by being the "one who handled the Barbaro story for Penn."

Proof once again that this story will be with those who participated in it for the rest of their lives--in different ways of course--but on some level, it is never going to go away.

Madison Avenue, are you listening?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

26 Years and Counting

Just a quick thought before I dash off to Penn for a day of lectures by a vet who has "made a career" out of the emotions of animals." Do they feel pain? Do they understand trauma? When is enough enough? Should be fascinating although difficult to get to because I need to dig myself out of an icy driveway first....

A brief respite with the Today Show (and a cup of coffee) where Michael Smerconish, local radio guru and Maureen Faulkner, plug their new book about the murder of Maureen Faulkner's policeman husband, Danny Faulkner, by Mumia Abu Jamal, who has been sitting on death row for 26 YEARS!!!! Granted there are extenuating circumstances, but talk about a story that has more lives than a cat--26 YEARS--and people are protesting outside the Today Studios. Matt Lauer is all worked up. Clearly, there are people still interested in hearing her story.

26 YEARS. Does Barbaro have that kind of staying power?

I heard Maureen say that Michael has been with her for 15 years, listening and helping her tell her story. Did he have to put his name on the book to get it to sell? She also said that it was great therapy to get her life out in black and white.

26 YEARS. That's a long time to wait to publish your story and yet ironically, the 26 years has become a selling point.

Will anybody still care about Barbaro in 26 years and more importantly will I?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Woman Walks into a Genius Bar....

When I was contemplating the job market during my senior year in college, my father offered the helpful suggestion that I could be "at the editor's desk" at the local all news radio station.

"And what would I do at the editor's desk?" I asked him, knowing he envisioned some sort of open space with frenzied reporters wearing headphones running in circles, desks with microphones, ON AIR neon signs and me somehow directing traffic.

"I don't know," he admitted. "But you could be at a desk." Implied was the presumption that he could also tell people where I was.

Yesterday I came up with an even better alternative: at the Genius Bar. Issues with syncing my previously no-issue i-phone with my computer forced me to make an appointment with tech support at the local Apple Store and I discovered that is where these wizards reside.

What an amazing concept: a Genius Bar. Imagine, telling your friends that your offspring worked at the Genius Bar. Trumps that Editor's Desk any day.

Anyway, the resident genius determined that the issue was not with the phone, but must be with my computer. And so I made another appointment for him to diagnose my software.

Which of course requires a return to the Genius Bar--a concept even my father could love.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Is there Still a Place for the Renaissance Woman?

I read an excerpt from a forthcoming article in The Writer about the benefits of being a generalist in the field of freelance writing. The article, which was written by a recent college grad, extolled the benefits of being able to write about anything, especially when breaking in to the business. You can, indeed, accumulate clips fairly quickly if you are willing to work for a local newspaper and write about everything from city council meetings, to girl scout cookie sales to high school sports.

It's funny. I wrote an essay on my college applications about the specialist versus generalist argument, (this was back in the dark ages, mind you, before the degree of specialization that we have today), coming out in favor of the generalist as well. My premise was that a too narrow focus limits you to the links between specialties that ultimately tie us all together. Call me naive; call me idealistic; call me hopelessly outdated. Regardless, the essay worked well enough to get me into a few high tier colleges from which I choose Princeton.

What's ironic is that in this era of globalization, when we are all more connected than ever before, my lack of specialization is actually one of the detriments to getting this book published. If I had accumulated a slew of clippings in the field of veterinary medicine, animal science or even human-animal connections, I probably would have more credibility to my name. And if those clippings had led to a column or website or blog about pets or horses or even racing, I would have opened a door that remains closed.

By being willing and able to write about almost anything, it seems I have precluded the possibility of becoming an expert in the one field that would have opened the door to incredible opportunities.

So to aspiring writers I would amend the advice about becoming a generalist. It's a great place to start but it shouldn't be where you finish, or you may never get past the first turn.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Omens or not?

I must be on to something. When I emailed my advisor at Penn about the topic of veterinary ethics he replied with interesting news. On Thursday of this week , he is hosting an ethicist who is speaking to his class about just such a topic. He invited me to crash the class, which you can bet I will be doing.

Then I learned that Dean Richardson, Barbaro's doctor, addressed the opening session of his peers at their convention in Orlando by speaking abut, guess who, Barbaro. From reports, it seems as if he is still emotionally invested in the experience (he is not "over" it) and even goes into detail about specific techniques he would do differently if he had to do it all over again today. Perhaps hindsight is actually necessary in this instance to properly evaluate his treatment plan. Perhaps I am not too late after all...

So it goes. I try to bury this story and it seems to continually rise from the dead. The longer the limbo period goes on, the more the book changes and it certainly cannot be the same book that was originally proposed. But the more I suggest changes, the longer the process drags on.

Talk about a vicious cycle.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


As I mentioned two days ago in my post, I have been pondering how to salvage my Barbaro research with regard to my Master's thesis. I talked about exploring the burden that pushing the limits of veterinary medicine plays on human owners who are forced to make all sorts of decisions for their pets that they may not be equipped to make.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I read in one of my favorite blogs, Dolittler, a post on the very same topic. It seems that the vet who writes the blog (a Penn grad ironically), was in the process of treating an eleven month old black lab who had been hit by a car and was essentially fatally wounded. The owners brought the dog in and told the vet to do whatever it took to save the animal. The dog was in a drug induced coma and the vet was pondering the limits of her profession, in the face of owners who were willing to spare no expense.

Sound familiar? She actually compares the situation to Barbaro's and ponders whether or not there should be some sort of framework in place for animals, like there is for humans, to help owners make end of life decisions. And yet, who should establish these parameters and who should enforce them?

Sound like a veterinary ethics dilemma and one that seems to be making more and more vets think. It's reassuring to know that I am not crazy for exploring the topic and yet it is also eerie that as much as I want to move on from my Barbaro experience, it doesn't seem to want to let me go.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I officially went back to work yesterday. I did an interview and wrote a short piece for a client. I still need to fact check it but it actually felt good to do be back in the trenches, so to speak. I also set up some interviews for projects next week. It will feel even better, no doubt, to get the cycle of income moving again.

To be fair, I have been working all along, but haven't really initiated anything for some time. This is partly the nature of freelance work--deadlines are often far in advance--and partly the result of taking myself out of commission for a while. It always takes a while to generate new work--especially when you would like to do it tomorrow--but my experience has shown that when it rains, it usually pours. In other words, new projects seem to come at once, often when you are the busiest.

It's funny but December is often a busy time. People like to wrap things up before the end of the year and some actually begin thinking ahead. January is a bit slower but that is when I usually start my projects due in early Spring. It is often easier to interview people in January than it is when the weather starts getting warmer.

It's fair to say that Barbaro has been moved to the back burner, something I probably should have done a long time ago.