Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

For a couple of years in college, I spent a few days a month working at the Belmont Stables in Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park. It’s just a dozen or so stables built in 1936 to house police horses on perhaps an acre of land.

I was under the tutelage of Ike Johnstone, an imposing, grandfatherly, gregarious kind of man who made you work for his respect. Ike, whose son played in the NFL, effectively ran the stables, which were owned by the City of Philadelphia, and operated his Bill Picket Riding Academy — a summer camp for mostly poorer Black kids from North Philadelphia.

Ike, who is Black, hosted horses for a handful of mostly Black families — offering a kind of opportunity and access that always seemed a point of pride for him. Despite that healthy Black riding community he fostered, Belmont Stables was unrelated to the Fletcher Street Riding Club that is most associated with mixing social justice and Black horse riding in Philadelphia.

“Plenty of Black cowboys if you know where to look,” Ike told me once.

When I was introduced to Ike, I told him I grew up in a rural county so I was always a tad embarrassed I never really learned how to ride. I asked if he’d teach me in exchange for service at the stables. He agreed with a wink. Once we became closer, he confided in me that he didn’t expect a 20-year-old to come back at all, let alone for more than year.

I helped with various maintenance projects and small odd jobs. Mostly I cleaned the stables. He once said to me with a squealing laugh: “A white boy shoveling shit for me: If only my granddaddy could see it.”

Over time we developed a friendship across decades of age difference, and he had a bigger influence on my life than he may realize. We told stories and exchanged ideas; He bought me a copy of Tally’s Corner, which still sits on my bookshelf as a tribute.

Each day I worked, he’d give me an hour or so of riding instruction. Small steps, time invested. He taught me to build a relationship with a horse.

“How’d you like someone you’d never met jumping on your back?” Ike would ask. “Depends who’s jumping!” I’d say, and we’d laugh.

A rider must have confidence, he’d say; you won’t always know the answer, but the horse must trust you to find one. Respect the horse, but you must be in control. A horse knows you’re scared before you do.

Over time he started taking me outside of his small corral. Then on a few longer rides. On one of our last, longer rides, we were crossing from one trail to another and were within sight of a parking lot. A nearby car revved its engine suddenly and loudly enough that it scared all of us, horses included. Ike, of course, recovered within a step. Not me.

My horse bolted. I lost grip of the reins, slid to one slide on the saddle and lost one stirrup, dangling for an instant by my legs. The horse, scared as she was, went into full, blind gallup. As these experiences seem to go, it all happened in maybe 10 seconds, but I still feel like I can remember each moment. I lifted myself back up, pulled on the reins firmly and evenly and gave a firm, loud, assertive command.

The horse stopped, with just a small buck. I turned her around and trotted back to Ike, with what I’m sure was a big, stupid grin on my face. Well done, boy, Ike said, which was as effusive praise as I could have ever gotten from him.

“Either you ride the horse or the horse rides you,” Ike said. “After a year of riding, that’s the first time I ever saw you ride.”

Ike patted me on the back. “Good thing, or I woulda had to get someone else to clean the stalls.”

I believe Donald Trump should be impeached

One of the reasons I’ve maintained this blog for more than 10 years is as an effort to hold myself accountable. I want to make sure I know in the future where I stood on something.

I am the publisher of a news organization and still operate as a community journalist. I do maintain the dated and increasingly unpopular opinion that journalists do have a responsibility for prioritizing policy, over politics. That is, though I don’t believe in an “objectivity ideal” and despite the anti-media climate we are in, I still prize journalists fighting for results and data and something resembling a shared truth. This is unpopular work, but I think it’s important.

So I try very hard to maintain relationships and dialogue with people I think are smart who hold a variety of nuanced perspectives on a range of matters. This includes local and specific issues, and national and global ones.

I’ve struggled in the last few years, as journalism has been derided and a growing list of conspiracy theories have blossomed. To write the obvious: Donald Trump is particularly divisive. Look no further than the historic election turnout in which 160 million Americans voted (anti-candidate voting is a commonly understood trend in election theory, so he drove both those who voted for him, and many who voted against him.)

I am quite able to track important achievements that have taken place during his presidency: Black and Brown people had historically low rates of unemployment before the pandemic, and there is bipartisan support for challenging the Chinese Communist Party, given reports of humans right abuses for Uighurs. For all the many related failings, the federal government’s initial response to the pandemic-related economic shock was effective and we produced vaccines with historic speed.

Nonetheless, I’ve always believed his combative rancor and leadership style (unprecedented turnover) were simply too corrosive for the presidency, our political system and national identity. His political opportunism routinely drove him to court overt racists — the “very fine people” of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally, for example. I’ve personally experienced the divisions he’s caused.

But for all of that, it was his increasing insistence that he would not accept the results of the election if he didn’t win that compelled me to go beyond the traditional role of a journalist. Before November’s election, I wrote a public endorsement for the first time in my career, and I openly courted others to follow that recommended.

I felt like I didn’t have any other choice. I wouldn’t sit it out, and I am not actively involved in reporting on elections. I felt like I crossed no boundary, and that I would be disappointed if I wasn’t publicly clear about my view.

The very foundation of our democracy fails when a candidate won’t accept its rules. After Trump lost the election and 60 failed court appeals, he continued to antagonize with his baseless claims, feeding a Big Lie that brought his base to a frenzy. He was recorded pressuring an election official to override the democratic election he held.

Then this Wednesday, he gave another of his false-laden speeches at a rally, including this: “After this, we’re going to walk down and I’ll be there with you. We’re going to walk down. We’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here. We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women. We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Then hundreds of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol during the certification of the next president. It was a kind of attempted coup, featuring some of the worst extremists our country has.

This is so far beyond the treason and high crimes standards for impeachment of a U.S. President.

I feel so challenged as a journalist who wants to maintain credibility in listening to political range. But this step has proven easier. It’s my professional responsibility to be clear that I know these to be lies and conspiracy theory and anti-Democratic behavior. Those who know me well know my personal feelings, but the storming of the U.S. Capitol has made this professional too.

No matter that we’re just a dozen days from the transition to the next president. I believe Donald Trump should be removed from office, whether it be via impeachment or otherwise.

I don’t believe this counters my role as a journalist, I believe it is an example of me following through with my professional and personal commitments.

My resolutions for 2021

Self-deception or not, I am an active participant in an annual reset. I personally appreciate taking a break, evaluating my goals and setting new ones for the next.

I hold some personal truths close, but I share annual resolutions each year. Even, or perhaps especially, after the very strange 2020, I am quite ready for 2021. Like you, I spent most of 2020 locked down at home or wearing a mask — as depicted above while walking my newborn daughter through a favorite nearby park. This will continue for what seems much of 2021. I suppose now I’m better prepared for it.

Continue reading My resolutions for 2021

My 2020 Review

I am not alone in welcoming the end of this chaotic and disruptive year.

I’ve been gifted enough perspective to be well aware of how fortunate I am. Still, I’m allowing myself to wallow in the enthusiasm I hold for the end of 2020. The feeling of closure around the end of year is purely psychological and it’s a feeling I enjoy every year. But, man, 2020 am I right?

Continue reading My 2020 Review

Actual conversations I had in 2020

This is not intended as a note of self-pity but rather a kind of reminder for me in the future. 2020 will be a famously challenging year. My experience was far less painful than many due to an array of privileges.

But goodness, I still found it stressful — and fast changing. One way I found myself thinking about it was by keeping a very strange list of the actual conversations I had with family, friends and coworkers this year.

Continue reading Actual conversations I had in 2020

White authors writing non-white characters

American fiction writing is over-indexed for straight white male voices, considering our rapidly diversifying country. A consequence of this has been painful examples of white authors doing a crummy job conveying the voice and experience of non-white characters.

This has been no better demonstrated than in Young Adult fiction. The deserved backlash has gone to a logical extreme: should white authors write non-white characters at all?

If you believe like me that there, indeed, will continue to be white authors and that we do not want all stories told by white authors to be exclusively populated by white characters, then the more productive question is how can white authors effectively and ethically write non-white characters?

Continue reading White authors writing non-white characters

How to live into your 90s

This isn’t like much of what I share here, but, then, this year isn’t like any we’ve experienced. From pandemic to other major personal life changes, I’ve been exercising less. It’s a challenge I’ve had before.

I’ve been thinking about that, as I’ve tried to maintain other habits. It’s something we all might ask: how can I live a longer, healthier life?

Five years after the initial round of findings from a longitudinal study called 90+, I saw an update on a new, detailed review on what we know about living longer and healthier. I thought I’d share a few of the simple takeaways, if only for my own uses.

Continue reading How to live into your 90s

Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

This is adapted from a Twitter thread.

There are many parallels between early newspapers and today. Like then, today big tech platforms are vilified for taking creative destruction to a more harmful end to civic discourse.

Then partisanship and misinformation gave rise to the modern concept of editing. Perhaps something akin is happening again.

Continue reading Newspapers were once the big tech platform companies everyone hated

My first political endorsement

For the first time in my life, I made a political endorsement. I ddi this on Facebook intentionally to engage with many of those in my life who are active on that platform. I am re-posting this here for archiving.

Hello, I do not post political messages often. I do it even less on Facebook. And yet…

I grew up pretty centrist politically, and I developed professionally in a bipartisan journalistic tradition — one that, despite policy is more important than politics. I have voted for Republicans and Democrats, so I have never made a public endorsement. I’m writing this here because I was raised in a conservative county, and so I believe this is my best opportunity to try to share with people who might not agree with me.

Continue reading My first political endorsement

A few notes from my conversation with Guy Raz of ‘How I Built This’

For Technical.ly’s postponed, all-virtual Introduced conference, I closed out the day interviewing Guy Raz, the influential podcaster behind ‘How I Build This.’ He has a new book by the same name.

For those interested in economic development and entrepreneurship, the conversation is worth a listen. My colleague Stephen Babcock put together a nice recap, and here are a couple points I took away:

Continue reading A few notes from my conversation with Guy Raz of ‘How I Built This’