In the morning, as the sun came up, Fate was sitting by the sheep, all huddled in a corner, trying to figure out what, exactly she was, and what they ought to do about it. The image looked timeless to me, something dogs have been doing for thousands of years with sheep. I love the way the light shrouded the scene.
I ought to say at the beginning of this piece that is clear this morning why the lobbyists and representatives of the New York Carriage Horses did not wish to support a public ceremony of gratitude and thanks for surviving the massive and lavishly-funded assault on their work and way of life this year. It's because this unnecessary and cruel conflict is far from over, according to new news reports. The mayor has come up with an even more surreal, sneaky and corrupt campaign than last year's effort, which would have replaced the horses with giant electric cars in the name of saving the environment. As part of the plan, he so sensitively offered the drivers – including many for whom work with horses is a way of life – the opportunity to drive little green taxis in the Bronx and the outer boroughs once their work and property was taken from them.
I was wrong and acknowledge it. The carriage trade and their lobbyists and lawyers I have very different ideas about openness, but I can't blame them for being wary and secretive, it is almost inevitable when you are dealing with fanatics, angry and vicious millionaires, lazy journalists, ruthless real estate developers and viscerally dishonest politicians who lie like rugs. I apologize to them, it is not for me to tell them what to do in any case. They have their hands full.
I am fired up again, I'm in this fight for good, people who love and understand animals will fight just as hard for them, I believe, as disconnected ideologues who know nothing about them.
So here we go once more, this new and apparently eternal fight to keep animals in our world rather than drive them away from us. The horses are in danger once more, facing purposeless lives on rescue farms or, as is much more likely, slaughter. The mayor's idea is to kill them in order to save them. Also in peril are the jobs of hundreds of mostly good and hard working people. Truly, they are the ones being abused.
Our allegedly progressive hero has gone after some working people again, and threatens to send hundreds of safe and healthy horses out into the horrific maelstrom of slaughter and rescue that has swept the horse world. This is another of the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier will shrink from the service of the horses; but he that stands by them now, deserves the love and thanks of every horse and animal in the world. Tyranny and ignorance, like hell, are not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheaply, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
The horses will thank you, even if the lobbyists are too busy fighting.
I think this round will be a lot easier than the last one. The new plan is…well, dumb. The animal rights groups in New York may be determined, but they don't seem to be all that bright. They are the animal world's Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, all those millions of dollars and countless lies and distortions, and it seems they didn't change the mind of a single New Yorker in the two years since the mayor promised to ban the horses on "day one" of his new administration.
Last night, the New York Times reported a new and especially sneaky back room assault by Mayor De Blasio. The man who has never owned a dog or a cat or ridden a horse is proposing getting rid of all but a handful of the 220 horses pulling carriages in Central Park, and relegating the survivors to a small old stable inside of the park.
According to the Times, the mayor has told members of the City Council he feels obliged to keep his word to Nyclass and the other animal rights groups who spent more than $1 million to defeat the mayor's primary opponent in the 2010 mayoral and have given more than $200,000 to the mayor's personal non-profit political organization. The poor man, if he knows nothing about horses, he is at least reluctantly but clearly honest about his true motives: money.
And he does know nothing about horses, he seems to almost jump out of his shoes when asked about them.
If you think of animal rights people as little old ladies fussing over their feral cats, think again. And don't believe for a second that the money you send them in New York City actually goes to help animals. The new animal rights people are right out of K street in Washington, they have PR firms, fund-raising specialists, mass marketers, expensive phone trees. Their treasury goes to lobbyists, not animals. Nyclass, the group spearheading the fight against the horses, cannot point to one single animal anywhere that they have actually saved or rescued. (Go look for yourself on their website.) Instead, they have spent millions of dollars electing mayors, printing hateful pamphlets, harassing carriage drivers and their customers, holding Orwellian press conferences, threatening City Council members, and lying about the carriage trade.
They function almost precisely as a hate group, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center's definition. It is disturbing to read how closely it fits.
Their most passionate goal in New York is separating the horses from their safe and beloved jobs working in Central Park. The mayor once again assumes the city's residents are stupid. So far, his constituents have shown that they are anything but. His new plan would keep the horses in the park day and night, they would never have to travel outside of the park. This would be better for them, he says, he is worried about them and the people they might harm.
But the horses are not unsafe trotting to and from their stables. Three have been killed in the past 30 years out f more than three million rides. Horses in the wild die at a dramatically higher rate – of exposure, starvation, lack of medical care, predators. According to the city's veterinary and health records – city vets check the horses regularly – no carriage horse is known to have died of respiratory disease from the allegedly toxic fumes the mayor says he worries about. According to the New York City Health Department, 7.6 out of every 100,000 human deaths in New York are related to pollution. The horses seem overall to be much safer than people.
Nearly 100,000 of New Yonkers have been killed or injured by cars and bicycles in the the past 30 years. Perhaps the city's residents should be forced into the park in affordable housing to keep them safe from the traffic of the city.
This morning, the mayor told a reporter for Fox News that he has long believed the city streets are not safe for the horses, and that the horses endanger people. Honestly, he said, he'd love to get rid of all of the horses, but that doesn't seem to be happening, he said sadly. No reporter I have seen has yet bothered to ask him about the safety statistics regarding horses and people in New York City.
The interviewer asked the mayor if it mattered that the city's residents want the horses to stay, and the mayor looked at her as if her head had just fallen off.
Here are some statistics: First, no person has ever been killed by a carriage horse in New York City, not one in 150 years.
In contrast, New York City as a whole – including Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island (Richmond County), Brooklyn (Kings County), and the Bronx – had a total of 125,550 reported motor vehicle accidents in one recent year alone. 348 of these accidents resulted in fatalities. 83,273 of these New York City motor vehicle accidents resulted in personal injuries to those involved, and property damage was caused by 41,929 accidents.
In 2013, according to the NYPD, 16,059 pedestrians and cyclists (this doesn't include motor vehicle drivers and passengers) were injured in accidents. 178 pedestrians were killed in traffic. In October of 2015 alone, according to NYPD records, nearly 5,000 people were injured in motor vehicle-and bicycle related accidents in New York City, and 25 people were killed. You do have to wonder why the mayor has become obsessed with banning an industry with by far the best safety record of any business in the city that operates on streets and with the public, while he ignores the deaths of thousands of people.
It's a curiously selective focus on safety. If the horses must be banned for their own protection, what about the people? Does the mayor really want to ask 25 horses to carry the workload of 220, ten times the work? Is the idea to actually abuse the horses in the city rather than leave them in health and safety?
The mayor is offering no plan to remove motor vehicles or pedicabs or taxis from Central Park or its environs, or of setting up horse lanes at special times for horses only, moves that would cost little and make people and horses dramatically more safe. The victims of accidents in New York might want to consider donating to the mayor's re-election campaign or non-profit website.
The mayor was asked on TV this morning how the hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to his non-profit site from the animal rights groups lobbying to ban the horses might affect his judgement about the carriage horses. He said of course not, his only concern was for safety.
It's true they used to call that bribery, perhaps extortion, but in our time it's called campaign financing. Everybody does it.
The mayor said his new plan is a compromise. This is all part of the democratic process, he said, blowing off the question of ignoring his own constituents, who overwhelming support the horses. This another curious statement from a mayor who has ignored public opinion, newspaper editors, unions and the Chamber of Commerce, who talks only to millionaire real estate developers about the horses. He has refused to meet or speak with a single carriage driver or stable owner or their representatives, lawyers or lobbyists.
This is a lover of democratic process who will not visit the stables in the city to see for himself if the horses are safe or not, or in any way acknowledge the very lengthy list of veterinarians, behaviorists, trainers and horse lovers who insist the horses are safe and healthy – and lucky.
Nor will the mayor discuss the carriage horse controversy or negotiate in public, out in the light and away from the back rooms of City Hall. This new plan has only been made public because of the Times, not because of any transparency on the mayor's part. His war against the carriage horses has been conducted almost entirely in secret. And small wonder. He would be eaten alive if he actually tried to debate the issue with anyone who knows a thing about horses.
I want to mention the real story, the one that moves me the most. I spent time yesterday afternoon and evening e-mailing and phoning people in the carriage trade, especially the drivers. They are the closest to my heart, I think. They are among the last true individualists in New York City, staying outside of the Corporate Nation, working in the shadow of the big office towers where so many people now spent their lives working in jobs they hate for people who could care less about them.
They are hurting, live in almost continuous fear and harassment. The very leaders and institutions sworn to protect them are part of an odious conspiracy to take their horses and lives from them.
The carriage drivers love their work, they love their lives. How sad that this has become almost a crime in America. I wonder sometimes if there is any place in our disconnected nation when people can live freely, and well outside of the box.
This morning, I spoke with one City Council member who has watched the carriage horse debate but mostly stayed out of it, not wishing to be trapped between the unions and the animal rights movement.
"Last year's plan was pretty loopy – replacing horses with motor cars," he said, "People in New York love the horses, and he claims to be a populist. How can he justify ignoring 62 per cent of the public, and going after working people? I don't think the ban ever had a chance, it never made sense. The new plan is even dumber. He needs to get the Teamsters, and the Central Park Conservancy on board, and also get the crazies from Nyclass to agree to keeping horses in the city, and how can they accept that when they've been screaming that work for horses is cruel and is abuse? The Central Park Conservancy people love the horses, they think he's lost his mind. It looks like he's just throwing meat to the lions to keep them off of his back. The animal rights people have a lot of money and they are giving a lot of it to him, but they're getting increasingly angry, they believe he has broken his promise to get rid of the horses, and they gave him a lot of money to do it. They gave a million dollars to defeat his major opponent. If they're dumb enough to buy this new deal, he gets off the hook. But he's never going to line all those elements up, it's a fantasy. The Teamsters kicked the crap out of him last year, they'll do it again. If anyone gets the carriage trade, it will be the real estate developers. They are killers, and they've got billions. Time is on their side."
Besides all of that, he said, his grandmother got married in Central Park and rode a carriage as part of the ceremony. "They take a ride every year on their anniversary. "The mayor has no idea how much people love the horses,mpeople who live here and tourists. They know the horses are fine, they see them all the time. For a politician who claims to be progressive, he seems pretty out of touch. I've talked to some of my colleagues this morning and mostly they are just ticked off at having to deal with this again so soon. Those poor people (the carriage drivers) deserve a breather from this. So do we."
For me, the carriage trade has become the land of broken dreams, the casualties of politicians who have forgotten their sworn duty to protect freedom and property, not to take it away because millionaires have given them money to do so.
One driver – he is from Italy – always hoped and dreamed his grandchildren and continue the tradition of his family of working with horses, it goes back hundreds of years. He was going to retire and give her his medallion, she has always loved horses as much as he has. "Now, I wouldn't let her do it. I wouldn't want her to live like this. They've stolen my dreams."
Once again, just before Christmas, the mayor has subjected dozens of working families to more of the fear, anger and uncertainty that has hung over their lives like a storm cloud for years. "We haven't bought a new car for three years, and mine has 200,000 miles on it. I'm afraid to buy it if I'm out of work and can't make payments." Another told me his daughter's dream of becoming a doctor is on hold, and may have to be scrapped. They don't think they can pay the tuition if some of the medallions are cut. Others cancel vacations, postpone repairs, think of other work they might have to find.
The drivers have lost their dreams, their peace of mind, their vision of the future, and increasingly, their vision of America as a place where government protects freedom and property. And where peaceful and law-abiding people can live in peace. They have broken no laws, committed no crimes, violated none of the hundreds of regulations that govern their work.
Yet they live like criminals, harassed, monitored, insulted and kept in awful limbo and uncertainty. Nobody can live like that for too long and not suffer. Nobody should have to.
I suspect the City Council member is correct, a political reporter I spoke with today echoed the council member's assessment. "Nobody can imagine why the mayor would resurrect this issue when his polls are in the toilet and his popularity among working-class people has never been lower. Although that might be the answer. It can only be that he's more afraid of Nyclass and their money than he is of the actual working class. Nobody who knows or works with him all these years has ever heard him mention a horse. This is the real and new power of money in politics. He knows how much damage these people can do, they did it for him (in their attacks on the Republican running for mayor, Christine Quinn). Even so, that seems a big mistake to me. Does he really want to be the mayor that drives the horses out of the New York and leaves hundreds of people out of work?"
Maria came up to me tonight and hugged me, and thanked me for helping to find herself, to help her get her life back. Now, she knows, she said, that she would never lose it, never go back. She was crying. She told me that she loved me. Funny, I said, I was thinking the very same thing about you. My life began in so many ways when I met you, and I love you very much too. And so we stood in the doorway of the kitchen, hugging one another, holding the other close.
We've had some exciting years, some tough ones, but every day has been a great day, and the truth is, I have never been happier, or even happy before. What a miracle that is.
Leo Tolstoy wrote that "If you want to be happy, be…" It's good advice. I didn't realize until fairly recently that happiness is a choice, not the gift of deity or an accident of fate. We are responsible for our lives. Lately, I've been writing about some heavy subjects — I've been in a reflective mood and I much enjoy expanding the range of my blog writing.
I'm getting lots of nice messages about my writing lately, people keep telling me that I'm maturing and deepening. I don't know about that, but my freelance editor, who is tough, says my writing is more beautiful than ever. It's very easy to please a writer, just praise them. The only word I ever want to hear about my writing is "brilliant," and I have yet to hear it from anyone but one book reviewer in Baltimore. I will always love her.
Something to strive for.
I do not intend for the blog to be relentlessly heavy, it is, in many ways, a celebration of life. But you can never completely relax. Today, the sometimes very creepy mayor of New York City resumed his war on the carriage horses. Time to saddle up again, I'll be writing about it tomorrow. The mayor concedes to friends he has to honor his promise to the animal rights people who spent $1 million dollars to defeat his major opponent in the mayor race, and have already given him $100,000 this year. Yuk.
They used to call that bribery, not it is called campaign finance.
The new plan is even dumber and sillier than the first ones, it will not succeed. I understand why the carriage trade people were reluctant to have a thank you ceremony. They do not yet feel there is anything to celebrate. More tomorrow.
One person messaged me to say there was a lot of serious stuff on the blog lately, and she hoped I wasn't depressed. I thanked her but pointed out heavy is not the same as depressing. Not in my mind. The thing is after I fell apart awhile back I promised myself I would learn about myself and share the journey.
Part of the journey is discovering, over and over again, the many things about me that were troubled or messed up. Quite a long list for one aging man, and I never seem to be finished. But that does not mean I am sad. I get sad once in awhile, it is cleansing and healthy. But never for long.
I am very happy. I am living my life in a meaningful way. I love every day of my life, being with Maria, writing, taking photos, working with the dogs, seeing my friends. This morning, Fate and I went out for our daily lesson, and one by one, the sheep went after her. They butted her, kicked her, charged at her, stomped their feet, even trampled her. Once or twice, she yelped in pain or surprise.
Each time, she came right back in a tried again, and again. They could not discourage her, run her off, frighten her. She went eye to eye, nose to nose. It was intense, like one of those grand old boxing matches between sluggers. This is why I love Fate. She does not quit, she cannot be deterred or discouraged.
She inspires me, I like to think we mirror one another.
This is where we connect, I think. I will not quit or be discouraged either. My willfulness has brought many good and bad things to my life, but the truth it, it has finally brought me happiness. For most of my life, I had no idea what happiness even was. I love who I am, what I do, who I do it with, where I am. I don't know that I could ever do better than that, it isn't something money or security could be.
In a sense, I have learned that happiness is a choice, not an accident. If you want to be happy, be. So I am.
For me, happiness is the total inability to make any evil or dishonest choices. When everything I desire is truly good and every choice not only aspires to be good but more and more, is good and attains that desire. Then I can be free and be happy because everything that I want moves towards fulfillment. I often fail, but I often succeed, more and more all the time.
I will never be satisfied. I hope not, stasis and complacency are just a benign form of suicide. Happiness for me, I told is friend recently, is taking my head out of my ass and keeping it there.
I can't really explain how much pleasure it gives me to go to My Post Office Box – P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, New York, 12816 and get holiday mail and messages from all over the country like the one I got today from Paula Bagby in Pleasant Hill, California. They come from everywhere, some are typed, some are hand-written, they are intensely personal, affirming and uplifting.
They remind me that the blog is important to people, it is read everywhere, it matters.
Some of the letters have cash neatly folded inside, some are checks for subscriptions, some are just thoughtful musings and greetings. One woman, Sandra from North Dakota, sent $10 so Maria and I could buy ourselves a cup of coffee at the Round House Cafe. It means so much to me – and Maria as well – to get messages like these anytime, but especially over the holidays, the idea of holidays has been difficult for both of us, and in a sense, many of you are family to us.
I love the tone and feeling of these P.O. Box messages, many are written at kitchen tables over coffee in the morning. I sit at my table in the morning and read them in the same way.
"Hi, Jon," wrote Paula from California, "Thank you for posting the Cathedral of the Woods picture. Beautiful! Awesome!. I needed it. Thank you." Enclosed was a neatly folded $10 bill in appreciation, and Paula sent her blog url for yesitsafarm.blogspot.com.
A sweet and simple and personal farm blog. Thank you Paula, for many things. For being so good and thoughtful, for sending me money you didn't have to send, for loving my photographs and my blog. It takes no time at all to send a nasty Facebook message, it takes time to get stationary and stamps, write a letter and send it.
That make sit all the meaningful to me. You don't need to send money when you write me at P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. But I love to go to the Post Office and check the mail in my P.O. Box. So many different voices, so many wonderful notes from everywhere. So much affirmation, the letters remind me that all of the work I do is worthwhile, it matters.
Happy Thanksgiving to Paula, and to all of the good-hearted people who have written and will write to me, especially over the holidays. I will be checking on my P.O. Box, every day..
When I read the news sometimes, I think of Thomas Merton's definition of Hell: "Hell is where no one has anything in common with anybody else except the fact that they all hate one another and cannot get away from one another and from themselves." It sounds like cable news to me, the politics of Washington, like our political campaigns or the dark side of Facebook.
Sometimes, when I venture beyond my farm, and am drawn into one of my gadgets, I think I'm there. I'm in the Hell Merton described. I'm glad I can come and go.
Hell is the absence of empathy, mercy or compassion. In Hell, there is no escape, and the reason the poor souls there want to be free of one another is not so much that they hate what they see in others, as that they know others hate what they see in them. Each recognizes in the other what they detest in themselves: selfishness and impotence and agony and fear and despair.
Our political and media world loves labels like "left" and "right and the sheep in human beings takes these labels happily and applies them to themselves and one another. I have come to see it differently.
I have a different idea of labels. I sometimes divide the world into two different kinds of groups: those who can empathize, those who cannot.
The term "empathy" is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Students of emotion generally define empathy as the ability to sense the emotions of other people, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. The absence of empathy is hatred and judgement – think of cable news again, or political blogs, or public comments on Facebook. If you can't imagine the emotions or feelings of others, you are free to dismiss as them something other than human.
Then you can hate them. Empathy makes that more difficult to do.
There are two kinds of empathy. "Affective empathy" refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to the emotions of other people; this can include mirroring what the other person is feeling, or absorbing the fear and anxiety of someone else. Fear is believed to be contagious.
"Cognitive empathy" refers to our ability to understand, even identify with the emotions of others. Psychologists believe that many people who experience autism spectrum disorders have a difficult time empathizing with others. Empathy is considered essential to healthy relationships, to finding love, to relating well to most people.
I guess politics creeps in a bit when it comes to empathy, because I am struck by its disappearance in our civic and political life. To me, empathy means identifying with the poor and the sick, the refugee and the child struggling to break out of poverty. In our culture, that is seen as belief of the "left, " not a common belief of Americans. The "right" views compassion differently as a rule: remove government and other obstacles from the poor and suffering, and they will prosper and have hope.
Political leaders without empathy attract citizens without empathy. They reinforce one another, on all sides of the political spectrum, and isolate almost everyone else. If you do not care for labels in our culture, you will be the lonely citizen, on the fringes.
For me – I am speaking only for myself – empathy means imagining what it means to be a terrified, homeless, hungry and suffering refugee, dreaming of a safe refuge for themselves and their children. I empathize very strongly with such people, perhaps because I could so easily have been one of them, my forebears were.
But if I am being honest about empathy, then I need to be cautious about denouncing the people who watch the horrific images and feel great fear. Is it possible to empathize with both? Of course. Empathy, I think, is like compassion. I easily grant it to people I like, not necessarily to the people who need it the most.
I remember feeling empathy for Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist whose macho life as a hunter was upended when he killed Cecil The Lion. I have no love of trophy hunters, but I kept thinking of his wife and children and employees and patients, many of them set upon by the raging mobs spawned by Facebook and Twitter, tearing through the lives of innocent people – even Dr. Palmer has apparently committed no crime – in the name of loving animals.
I felt empathy for the children who slaughter people and blow themselves up before they have even lived. The young terrorists are not weaklings or cowards, wrote one journalist in Paris, they are brave in very twisted ways. How awful that they were converted by angry old men into murdering machines, the same way old men throughout human history send the young – all swept up in the virtue of their cause – off to war to die and kill. Empathy asks us to consider that these broken people see us in precisely the same way we see them. Since they have no empathy for us, we become subhuman entities whose killing is not only permissible, but moral.
And so, they become inhuman, and must be killed themselves. The wheel turns and turns.
I can't help when I write about empathy but think of the battered carriage drivers in New York City, persecuted and harassed for years now, exhausted and fearful for their very existence. The first thing I felt about the animal rights activists abusing and tormenting them was this: they had no empathy, they could not see the drivers as human beings worthy of compassion and moral consideration. They could not grant them a single decent or human impulse, empathy makes is so much harder for us to destroy the lives of others or judge them.
I see the lack of empathy in the persecution of the farmer Joshua Rockwood, whose investigators could only see the ice in his water bowls, they could not see the person standing in front of them. Empathy would have served justice that cold winter much more than judgment.
Empathy, like compassion, is a drug. It can make you crazy, and there are lots of people who will hate you for it. It is best taken and shared in small doses.
Ultimately, the judgement about who is truly empathetic, one political label or another, belongs to history. I hope my daughter or her children see a country with common purpose, hopefully an empathetic one. I believe I need to live "small," not on a big stage but a small one. And empathy, for me, is important. It defines what it means to be a human being, it is the antithesis of Hell.
Empathy is the anti-dote to fear and argument, it makes hatred and self-righteousness impossible, when I am thinking about it. The experience of putting myself in the shoes of another has been revelatory for me, it has brought me all kinds of peace and connection and community. It is rarely easy for me, it is always worthwhile. It does much more for me than it does for them.
Making friends, for example, or being courteous to strangers, or offering help in small ways, one person at a time. The world is overwhelming if you take it as a whole. I think of Henri J. M. Nouwen's notion of empathy in Out Of Solitude: Meditations on the Christian Life. It is a wonderful description of the spirituality and beauty of empathy:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
That is a friend with empathy.