Horse Ears

“Do you know how horses communicate?” Beverly asked at the beginning of our riding lesson.

My mind trotted back (it cannot race anymore) to the last time I heard Beverly ask this question. I was sitting on this same bench in the Rancho Santana stables a year ago. Or was it two years?

Trot. Trot. Trot. Just as I was pulling open memory’s file, she answered her own question: “With their ears.”

“When your horse is feeling comfortable and happy, his ears are upright,” she explained, using her cupped hands to demonstrate. “And when they are not happy, what do you suppose they do?”

“They are pulled back!” I nearly shouted, responding like the eager school child her style of pedagogy implied.

“And when their ears point forward?” Andy asked.

“Good question!” she said. “When their ears are pointing forward it means that they are no longer paying attention to you. Their ears are pointing towards what they are interested in or what they’re about to do.”

Rancho Santana, as the name suggests, has always been a ranch. Long before we bought the property 20+ years ago, horses were stabled here, along with cattle and occasionally goats.

The stable we were in is the third one in my time. The first was essentially a covered corral near the beach. The second we built a year or so after we bought the land. It housed six horses and was replaced by the current one, which is about three times larger and way nicer.

Today, the stable and surrounding paddocks are home to 15 or 20 horses. And the ranch itself frequently hosts a dozen more that somehow get onto the property and graze on its fields – free food, basically – then make their way back to their owners’ casitas at night.

I’ve never been a much of a caballero. I like the idea of riding a horse and the way a body looks sitting upright in the saddle. But I’ve never enjoyed the riding itself. When the horse is walking, it feels clunky and slow. When the horse is trotting, it’s uncomfortable. (Horse people say otherwise. I don’t believe them.) And when the horse is galloping, it’s frightening. And dangerous!

Still, I feel some sort of obligation to “use” the stables when I’m at the ranch. So I usually book one ride per stay.

Cecily, Andy, and I arrived at the stables at four in the afternoon. We figured that would give us 90 minutes of daylight in the cooler part of the afternoon. And after Beverly’s lesson (which we did enjoy), we saddled up and she tested us on the basics: going forward, backing up, and turning.

Since these horses are accustomed to amateur riders, they are very responsive. We all passed muster, so Beverly turned us over to Lorenzo, chief horse master or whatever, and his two sons. (Apparently, she felt we each needed a handler.)

Lorenzo asked me which of the half-dozen routes I wanted to take. I told him I had another idea. He looked concerned. I said I wanted to ride all the way to Los Perros, at the southern end of the ranch.

“But that will take more than an hour,” he said. “It’s not good for you to be riding back in the dark.”

I told him that my plan was to get there just before sunset and enjoy cocktails as the sun dropped behind the horizon. “You and your boys can take our horses back.”

He seemed okay with the plan, so that’s what we did.

Lorenzo was at the lead, followed by Cecily and Andy, followed by Giovanni, Lorenzo’s youngest son, followed by me, and with Lorenzo Junior at the tail.

The trip took just about an hour. It was mostly walking, with the occasional 50-yard trot. But there were steep ups and downs that tested our leg muscles. Along the way, I paid close attention to my steed’s ears – which were, I am proud to report, generally in the upright position. She labored well, up and down those hills, carrying me, at 210 pounds, on her back. By the time we arrived at Los Perros, I’d had my fill of riding for the day, and I believe my horse was happy to have me dismount. Walking stiffly to the beachside cantina, Cecily, Andy, and I agreed that it had been a good idea to make the ride one-way.

As a courtesy, I invited Lorenzo and the boys to have drinks and snacks with us. He surprised me by agreeing. We sat at a table overlooking Playa Iguana. The waves were gentle. The sky was turning orange. My Margarita was salty, not sweet, which is the only way to drink it. I asked Lorenzo if he minded taking the horses back in the dark.

 

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If I Were in Charge of These Hills

There is an unwritten rule when building your house on top of a hill: Keep the roofline below the treetops. When you violate this rule by setting a two-story structure at the very crest of the hill, you create an ugly and permanent blemish on the profile of that landscape. Any sensitive someone looking at the hill from afar would have his pleasure ruined – the vista’s soft and undulating strata of green interrupted by an ugly man-made block.

We have such violations in Nicaragua, along the Pacific coastline north of Rancho Santana. One of them is a restaurant called Mag Rock (short for Magnificent Rock), a barn-like, three-story structure perched at the top an outcropping of rock that rises above and juts out from the shoreline like a prow heading into the ocean.

Every time I look at it, I get annoyed. What kind of shallow, selfish, and aesthetically demonic person would do this. And stupid. You can get your view, even of both sides, without destroying the tree line. All you have to do is cut the structure into the hilltop. (See illustration below.)

So when Andy and Cecily said how much they enjoyed their lunch at Mag Rock, with its “mag-nificent” view and all, I had to say something.

“I’d like to burn it down,” is what I said.

Cecily decided to ignore me. Andy took me up. I explained my theory about building on hillsides.

“There should be a law,” I said.

“Maybe there is,” he said.

I like to think of myself as a classic Libertarian – i.e., that if forced to choose, I’d choose freedom over other social values. But when it comes to beauty – and let’s be real for a moment, sooner or later nearly every ideological view comes down to deeply held views about beauty – I’m a law-and-order monger.

“Lots of people think the world would be better if they were in charge ofeverything. I just want to be in charge of beauty,” I said.

“A Grand Minister of Aesthetics?” Andy offered.

“Exactly.”

I smiled and thought about it.

“It would be a big job,” I admitted. “I’d need help. Several ministries beneath mine. I’d need a Ministry of Landscape, a Ministry of Architecture…”
“A Ministry of Interior Décor?”

“Certainly. And a Ministry of Attire… and Jewelry… and Watches… and Cars…”

“With you at the helm?”

“Naturally. Someone has to set and approve the standards.”

“And would there be penalties? Fines perhaps?”

“Not tough enough. Corporal punishment. Torture and death.”

Seriously, just think about how much better – i.e., more beautiful – the world would be if we could do away with all the ugly things.

Forget about eliminating war and poverty for a moment. Think about how wonderful it would be to wake up each day to a world devoid of aesthetic abuse.

Think of all the things that would not be. Such as:

* Buildings built upon hilltops

* Brightly lit, quasi-Italian restaurants

* Boca-styled mansions

* Boca Raton itself

* Duck backs and comb-overs

* Gold-plated faucets

* Almost any fixture plated in gold

* Which is to say Trump Tower

* Earth shoes and tube socks

* Plastic furniture coverings

* Renoir reproductions

* Any sort of stretch material on unattractive bodies

The list goes on.

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Dinner at Mad Dog Pizzeria

Monday, January 14, 2019

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua.- Dinner last night was at Mad Dog’s, located about 20 minutes west of Rancho Santana on the coastal road by the turnoff to Guasacate.

It sits in the corner of a brand-new shopping mall that is said to have been built by “the Italian guy that owns that huge house with the giant blue dome on the beach.” I find that easy to believe. Both structures are wonders in bad taste.

Partly because it is new, but mostly because tourism in Nicaragua has all but disappeared since the political protests began early in 2018, the mall has only this one tenant. (And three cars in the parking lot last night.)

It’s called a pizzeria. And although it does serve pizza, one can see that it’s really a wannabe restaurant, with a menu that includes appetizers and entrees, as well as wines, beers, and desserts.

The layout is unfortunate: one oversize room, heavy on the marble, topped by a ceiling fresco of the sky and ducks (of all things). And the place is lit up like an operating room.

I’ve seen restaurants like this in some of the smaller cities of Italy. Just last year, we had dinner with Peter and Jill at one in Salerno. We would have never thought of entering based on its appearance. But it was recommended confidently (and correctly, as it turned out) by a pretty young woman on the street as having the best pizza in town. But that was Italy. This is Nicaragua.

Andy and Cecily were still on their way, coming back from a day-long adventure that included climbing the Mombacho volcano, visiting a coffee plantation, having a late lunch in Granada (the most perfectly preserved Spanish Colonial city in the Americas, according to UNESCO), and then zip-lining. (“We never got to take the boat tour of the isletas of Lake Granada,” Cecily complained. “We ran out of time.”)

So there were seven of us for dinner at Mad Dog’s, including my sister Gaby, who has lived in Rome for 30 years; Cecily and Andy, who met while working for me 30 years ago; Tommy, my friend of nearly 60 years; and Tommy’s 180-pound, 11-year-old son Billy, who was halfway through a warm-up pizza when we arrived.

The waitress spoke some English, which would have been unheard of 20 years ago when I first came to Nicaragua. She was far from fluent, but she was familiar with such idioms as, “I’ll check it out.” (I wondered about the history of that.)

The menu was odd. Light on salads and vegetables, heavy on pizzas, and featuring six entrees, half of which were not available. I chose the pork belly, which turned out to be a mistake. But everyone else’s meals were reported to be “good” to “very good.” Tommy said his lamb was the best he’ ever had. And “little” Billy finished his pizza and ordered a few tacos to boot.

As near as I can recall, the dinner conversation was mostly about nothing. But there were two discussions that I did enjoy.

One was about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams. (Most yams – and almost all sold in US supermarkets –  are actually a type of sweet potato, softer and more orange than the harder type that retains the name. True yams are entirely different. They come from a plant that is native to Asia and Africa, and are sold only in specialty shops.)

The other one was a brief argument about the meaning of the word “Palladian.” I had come across it during my daily exercise of looking for new or unfamiliar words. The reference I used defined it as somehow related to the goddess Athena – in particular, as “something that gives symbolic protection,” like the many statues of Athena that you see all over the classical world. But Cecily thought it had to do with architecture.

I looked it up – and we were both right. Palladian architecture is a 17thcentury neoclassical style – symmetrical and balanced – that was inspired by the work of the 16thcentury Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).

It looks like this:

Driving back to the ranch in the blackness, the car’s suspension system rattling from the hard dirt and rock road, I thought about how lucky I am to be having ordinary dinners in such extraordinary places with people I’ve known for so many years.

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The New Challenge I Give Myself Every Day

I received a note from a former protégé who is using my personal productivity system (my “Goaltending Program”) to accomplish her very demanding schedule as editorial director of a growing publishing company.

I thanked her for the note, congratulated her on her success, and said, “You know, I’ve taught this system to dozens, showed it to thousands… yet you may be the only person besides me that is using it!”

Then I shared with her something that I’ve added to the Goaltending Program.

It’s a new challenge I give myself – four things I try to do in order to enjoy the satisfaction of an intellectually fulfilling day:

  1. Write something worth reading.*
  2. Do something worth writing about.*
  3. Read something worth recommending.
  4. Learn something worth teaching.

This is a quality-of-life challenge. There are no requirements in terms of “how much” or “how long.” For example, “Learn something worth teaching” might be how to adjust one’s side view mirrors so that there are no blind spots. And “Write something worth reading” might include this little journal entry that you are reading right now. (Of course, you are the judge of whether I’ve succeeded.)

*I got the first two from Ben Franklin.

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Why You Should Read Poetry… Even If You Don’t Like To

There’s something about the power of poetry… what it can do that other forms of literature cannot. If you don’t know what I mean, read Robert Lowell’s collection Near the Ocean.

Harriet Zinnes, a poet, introduced me to Robert Lowell when I was in my junior year at Queens College, CUNY, in 1969. I bought a copy of Near the Ocean, a small volume then in its 4thedition.

I remember liking his poetry very much. Particularly this collection. But I hadn’t seen it in years. It had mysteriously disappeared. Then – just as mysteriously – it reappeared in my library at our home in Nicaragua. And so, when the family was at the tennis courts and Helen, my mother-in-law, was napping, I sat under the palapas-topped pavilion by the pool and read it.

Among its many virtues, is this example of concentration – loosely translating the Cleopatra story (from Book 1 of Horace’s Odes) to something modern and powerful and deep:

 

Cleopatra

Now’s the time to drink,

to beat the earth in rhythm,

toss the flowers on the couches of the gods,

Friends!

Before this, it was infamous

to taste the fruit of the vine,

while Cleopatra with her depraved gangs,

germs of the Empire, plotted

to enthrone her ruin in the Capitol,

and put an end to Rome…

Impotent,

yet drunk on fortune’s favors…

but Caesar tamed your soul

you saw with a now sober eye

the scowling truth of his terror,

Of Cleopatra, scarcely escaping,

and with a single ship, and scarcely

escaping from your limping feet, on fire,

Cleopatra, with Caesar running on the wind,

three rising stands of oars, with Caesar

falling on you like a sparrow hawk

fallen on some soft dove or sprinting rabbit

in the winter field. And yet you sought

a more magnanimous way to die.

Not womanish, you scorned our swords,

you did not search for secret harbors.

Regal, resigned and anguished,

Queen, you even saw your house in ruin.

Poisonous snakes give up their secrets,

you held them with practiced hands,

you showed your breasts. Then bolder, more ferocious,

death slipping through your fingers,

how could you go aboard Octavian’s galleys,

how could you march on foot, unhumbled,

to crown triumphant Caesar’s triumph –

no queen now, but a private woman?

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Success in the Spotlight: It’s More Rock Than Roll

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Delray Beach, FL.- I was late arriving at Steve and Lori’s annual holiday party last weekend. I’d been working on the outline of a new book, and I wanted to finish it while I still had a sense of it in my mind.

Steve’s parties are always inspiring. Inspiring is an odd way of describing a “party,” but in this case, it’s warranted. There is something about the elegance of the architecture of their house, how serenely it sits on a wide stretch of the Intercoastal Waterway, and also and mostly the diversity and quality of the guests. It breathes some sort of ambition into me. Makes me feel a little like Nick Carraway visiting his neighbor Jay’s West Egg mansion.

Steve accepted my apology with a smile: “The price of success is hard work,” he said.

“Vince Lombardi,” I replied, happy to recognize the quote.

The occasion was Delray Beach’s annual boat parade, our South Florida attempt to create a semblance of the good cheer generated by the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Elaborately lit and decorated boats float up the Intercoastal for 3 hours.

Steve introduced me to Max Weinberg – Max Weinberg of the E Street Band and a  decade-long stint as Conan O’Brien’s bandleader. If you didn’t know who he was, you might think – from his physical appearance and the way he conducts himself – that he was a college teacher or a lawyer (the profession he was pursuing before hooking up with Springsteen).

In fact, if Steve hadn’t clued me in before he introduced us, I never would have guessed that he was a rich and famous guy. (And what better praise can you give a successful person?)

Steve had told me that Max is an avid reader and a huge consumer of books about politics. So we talked about that for a while. Then, somehow, the subject of family came up and we talked about how proud we are of our kids. It was a completely normal, unremarkable, but unusually gratifying conversation.

I was interested in his professional life, and felt comfortable asking about it. I was not (to his pleasure, I think) the least bit interested in him as a “rock star.” I wanted to understand the labor and stress of what he did. The day-to-day grind of it. The kind and amount of work that was involved in achieving the success he had.

I was interested because, for a long time, I’ve been thinking (and writing) about what, to my mind, are the virtues of success. My theory is that there is a nearly direct relationship between how much you get paid and how much effort you put into your job. That financial success – if not all success – is 99% hard work.

In describing his career, past and present, Max said nothing to derail that theory. For him, an 8-hour day is a short day, and a 5-day workweek a rare treat.

He told me that he views his skill as a drummer as being secondary to his success. Much more important: He was always on call for new opportunities, always willing to say yes more often than no, and always did whatever it took to not only keep his promises but exceed expectations.

I felt like I was talking not to a rock star but to a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company.

The subject of Springsteen’s one-man show on Broadway came up. I told Max that I’d seen it and was impressed. “Five shows a week – it must have been incredibly hard on him,” I said.

“It’s a commitment, for sure,” Max said. “And a lot of work, too. The physical work is nothing compared to touring with the band. But the responsibility of leaving the house each afternoon, after a day of working on other things, and doing the show… If you could see the look in his eyes before he sets off for the city. He has to drum up the energy to rise to the challenge one more time.”

“He’s the hardest working person I’ve ever known,” Max said.

“Like Vince Lombardi used to say…” I replied.

“Right,” Max said. “It’s the price you must be willing to pay.”

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Solo Fliers vs. Quotidian Pilots

Friday, December 7, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- In every business, the golden current of wealth and power flows to the rainmakers. This is not a factor of ideology. It is a biological fact of the organism that is .- business itself. And, whether you like it or don’t, you cannot change it without killing the organism.

But there are two kinds of rainmakers.

There are those that take irresponsibly high solo flights that often end in wreckage. And there are those that check their gauges and follow proven flight plans.

The solo fliers, if unrestrained, will more likely kill your business than grow it. The quotidian pilots will never kill it if they can help it. They will put their genius to making the ETAs.

As a founder or CEO or whatever you are, you have to recognize that, on a daily basis, you cannot give control of your business to the solo fliers. You must employ the quotidian pilots to safely keep things moving.

But if you want growth from your business — and that means growth at any stage (whether you are looking to break the million-dollar barrier, the 10-million-dollar barrier, the 100-million-dollar barrier, or the billion-dollar barrier), you must allow your solo pilots permission to make their flights.

The masterful CEO/founder is the person who can figure out how to do that.

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Wilderness Man Survives Again

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Delray Beach, Florida.- After a frenetic week with the extended family in Nicaragua, I was in need of rest. The last thing I wanted to do when we arrived at Miami Airport last Saturday was to jump on another plane and fly down to Brazil. But I’d made a promise to a friend and partner. I’d committed to spend some days in Sao Paulo speaking at a conference on wealth building and meeting with the marketing and copywriting teams of our three publishing businesses down there.

I mused about calling in sick. I had a runny nose, so it wouldn’t have been a total lie. And also, let’s be honest… did they really need me? My Brazilian fan base (if you want to call it a fan base) had shrunk considerably since they stopped carrying my essays. The audience I’d be speaking to was less than 300 people. More to the truth of it, I hate giving speeches. And as for those meetings with all those young talents, what could I possibly tell them that they didn’t already know? They’d read my books. They’d seen my lectures. I’d be just another old guy telling them old stories about old ideas.

I walked K out of the airport to the car service lot where Lou was waiting for her. She was talking about what she’d be doing when she got home. I was thinking (for the zillionth time): “Why don’t I just quit? Why am I still working?”

As I put her luggage into the trunk, I imagined myself climbing in there with it. What if I disappeared? Just disappeared. I could hightail it to my writing studio above the garage and hang out there for a few months until I could come up with a story to account for my absence.

Walking back into the airport, I did what I always do at this stage of my before-the-business-trip blues. I imagined myself a pioneer in the wilderness. An 18th century family man in Appalachia or the Rockies, setting out from my little log cabin in a blizzard, rifle in hand, to hunt for the meat and pelts that would keep my family alive.

“It’s too dangerous now,” imaginary K warns me. “Wait for a calm in the storm.”

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” I reply. Then I kiss her on the forehead, pull down my coonskin cap, and march out the door.

The “hunt” in Sao Paulo was, as always, less brutal and less perilous than I had feared. The first night was easier than marching through the howling snow. It was more like watching a good documentary while sipping Chenin Blanc in the business class cabin of American Airlines flight 993. And giving my speech was less like tracking elk than excitedly explaining to lots of friendly faces my latest ideas about building wealth safely in today’s markets.

And the half-dozen meetings to which I’d have nothing to bring? They turned out rather well, actually. All those young, smart folks — they paid attention. There were nods and even smiles. And there were questions. Lots of questions that I could answer with confidence.

Then, in between, there were several really good meals with several really interesting people, two great lessons and three rolls with world-famous Jiu Jitsu champions, visits to two of Sao Paulo’s great art museums, and a VIP tour of the municipal theater. (One of the most beautiful opera houses I’ve ever seen.)

Lou dropped me off at home this morning at 5:30. It’s 6:30 now, and I’m sitting in the kitchen, writing this. Looking up through the east window, I see a thousand little clouds, dark violet in the darkness, spread out along the horizon above the ocean. It is dawning, and it’s a quick dawn. And as the minutes pass, little dark shapes are lit up from beneath in a luminous orange as the sky lightens from gray to streaks of purple and pink and blue.

My next trek into the wilderness is more than a month away.

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Steve Jobs on “Why Companies Fail”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Sao Paulo.- I’m in Brazil, catching up on email before I get to work – and I came across a video by Steve Jobs that Sean MacIntyre sent me. (See the link to the video, below.) It’s very good. And Jobs was fundamentally right.

I’ve never thought of it in quite this way, but I’ve always had a gut feeling that product development should lead the business.

When you are just starting out, you have to focus on sales and marketing. That’s because until you’ve been in business for years, you don’t actually know enough about the kind of products your market really wants.

Jobs understood this. In launching his business, he was all about discovering what the market really wanted in terms of customer experience. He said so on many occasions. But as the business grows beyond the point where it is selling hundreds of millions of dollars of product each year, there is a natural tendency for the marketers to take over.

And that can be dangerous – even destructive.

Everything ultimately depends on customer experience. And customer experience is 50% the experience of buying the product and 50% the experience of using it.

The way I have dealt with this has been to preach what I call “incremental augmentation.” It is essentially a refutation of the old adage: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

For me, a healthy business is one whose products are forever improving. And a smart founder/CEO is one that is never satisfied with yesterday’s product.

Jobs’ video provides a deeper insight into why that is smart.

One of the reasons I decided to rewrite Ready, Fire, Aim– my most popular business book – is because, since it was published,  I’ve had many new ideas about why some entrepreneurial businesses are incredibly successful, and some fail miserably.

I’ve posted the introduction and part of the first chapter of my rewrite here on this blog, and I’ll be posting the rest as I get each section finished. One subject that I’m quite sure I will include is the challenge of reining in a big and fast-growing company when its leaders are all very adept at creating profitable growth.

Take a look at what Jobs has to say about this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuZ6ypueK8M

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Thanksgiving Morning in Nicaragua

Thursday, November 22, 2018

This year’s to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featured a musical vignette from Prom, a new Broadway play that opened to great reviews. My niece, Izzy McCalla has a leading role in it. They were scheduled to be on TV at 8:15. At 8:00 we turned on the TV in the den of our house here, but we couldn’t locate it. So we rushed down to the clubhouse, begged the workers to turn on the bar TV and then Number Three Son Michael frantically searched through their larger selection of channels looking for the international channel that would be carrying it.
At 8:14 he was still searching. Everyone — including from Helen my mother in law to Francis my grandson — was yelling at him. “Hurry!”
Then, at 8:15 exactly, the image of Izzy and her costar appeared on screen. We had found it at the very moment it began….!
So we saw the whole thing, thanking our lucky stars and bragging to the restaurant workers ….Esa es nuestra prima! Esa es nuestra sobrina!

 

It’s Thanksgiving – a Good Time to Count Your Many Blessings

Nicaragua

Your wealth:

You haven’t hit the Forbes list of wealthiest humans, but you have enough money to put clothes on your back, a roof over your head, and food in your stomach. “The Pilgrims made seven times more graves than huts,” H.U. Westermayer reminds us. “No Americans have been more impoverished than these, who, nevertheless, set aside a day of thanksgiving.”

However meager your financial assets are now, they greatly exceed those of the great majority of the world’s population. So be thankful for that.

Your health:

You have aches. You have pains. You may have illness and infirmity. But if there are times during the day when you can enjoy yourself by yourself or with other people… you have something to be thankful for.

Your wisdom:

There are so many mysteries, so many unanswered questions. You know only a fraction of what you’d like to know, but you understand the most important things. You realize that of the gifts of life, three are most important.

* Consciousness: the greatest natural gift — your innate and inalienable (see Today’s Word, below) ability to experience the world around you, to notice and to appreciate a million possible things.

* Connections: the limitless possibilities you have to have good and loving moments with your family, your friends, and with virtually everyone you have the chance to speak to every day.

* Creativity: the potential of your imagination — the capacity to do what you want with your mind, which is, after all, where your life is located.

Be thankful for that.

Your work:

For many, work is a chore. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you. You have the ability to find work you love, or love the work you do. It’s about freedom — the freedom to desist from seeing yourself as a victim and to take responsibility for your future, regardless of whatever disadvantages you have now or obstacles that lie before you.

Be thankful for that, too.

Oxygen:

Each breath is another gift.

Be thankful.

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