Leap years

by Suzanne Choney | Jul 5, 2000
Leap years Maybe Tom Ashbrook was mad. Maybe it was a midlife crisis that propelled him to dump a respectable and distinguished career, risk his marriage and face the humbling and humiliating state of living on bank account fumes. Oh, and he had three kids - one recently born. This cautionary, yet exhilarating, tale could have been titled "The Plunge," especially in this era when Internet-related fortunes are made, lost, made, and lost again. Ashbrook`s personal saga may or may not be typical, but it is heart-wrenching and heart-stopping.

In his "previous" life, Ashbrook was a well-regarded journalist for the Boston Globe. He covered international affairs, often traveling to dangerous turf in Africa and the Balkans. He admits being born with a low threshold for boredom and a high need for excitement. In his late teens and 20s, that included working on an oil pipeline in Alaska and spending a year in India to study Eastern mysticism. In his 30s, it meant being a top-level editor whose decisions weren`t always popular. Approaching age 40 in the mid-`90s, and after coming back from one foreign reporting trip too many, the itch for radical change began anew.

The romance was gone from the newspaper business, he writes, "not just at the Globe, but all over the news-gathering world. Social crusading was way out of style, almost forgotten. ... Just as newspaper circulation was headed down across the country, foreign news coverage, the mainstay of my career, was in full retreat. The very notion of newspapers as the linchpin of a vital civic dialogue was feeling distinctly quaint. The economy was driving everything. We chased behind."

And, Ashbrook had covered uprisings and tragedies in Rwanda, Zaire, Somalia and the Balkans, and was starting to feel worn down and depressed by it all.

"The past would be with us always, present and consequential and demanding. But I didn`t have always. I had now. Forgive me, I thought, walking through the gutted streets of Mogadishu and Vukovar and graveyards on the equator. For a while I may need a different vista. And there was a candidate. They called it the Internet, and it was supposed to be the new frontier. It was young and fresh and knew nothing of genocide and war."

Today, only half a decade after Ashbrook wrote those words on a plane back from Africa, many of us do research online, shop online, get our news online, talk to our friends and loved ones online - without a second thought. But in the mid-`90s, tying one`s future to this thing called the Net, when relatively few people were online, was precarious and, some thought, foolhardy. Some still believe that.

As the change itch demanded a scratch, into Ashbrook`s life came an old college friend with a brain as fast and complex as the best cable connection to a computer. The two men shared a love of Victorian homes. And they came up with a plan for a Web site that would let people view and choose elements of Victorian design that they could put into their homes at a reasonable cost. They worked feverishly on their first draft of a business plan, and ran through the woods singing the "Star Wars" theme when they completed it. It is a delicious moment of optimism and faith and hope. The flip side - watching their modest bank accounts dwindle and their marriages teeter as they give their lives over to their new business - should make this book required reading for anyone contemplating the same.

Starting a new business from scratch takes great courage, but it also takes a toll. Both men had mortgages, car payments, insurance to cover, plus "an all-American stack of credit cards." They used that stack and added many more to it. Ashbrook pays great tribute to his wife, Danielle, who stood by him as he struggled to launch what is now known as HomePortfolio.com (and which is much more broadly based than things Victorian). He writes with anguish about the fissure in his marriage as weeks and months and years speed by with no success and no money. Danielle had ached to quit her job to stay at home with what would be their last child, and to spend time with their two older boys. That was not to be.

Ashbrook is someone we can cheer for, and someone we keep hoping will win, because of his sometimes naive but always-from-the-heart belief in what he is trying to achieve. If you are in the mood for a real-life thriller, and if your stomach doesn`t mind being in knots, "The Leap" is a white-knuckle ride. And in the end, it`s an all-American story about hopes, dreams, fears and failures.

- Suzanne Choney

"The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas; Simon & Schuster; 256 pages; $24.

Paeans to dogs are easy to love, especially when you`re a dog lover. Dog lovers are different from dog owners. The phrase "dog owner" implies slavery, something Elizabeth Marshall Thomas contends dogs are born into in our society. How else, she asks, to explain what we do to dogs?

"Dogs are slaves, whether we like it or not. We buy them and sell them, we legally kill them for reasons that no dog would understand, and we control their reproduction by removing their wombs or testicles, or else by choosing partners for them, then taking away their children at an early age. ...

"We even control the mobility of dogs. We keep them on leashes or in crates. Most communities insist that dogs never run free, even if the dog will not be a nuisance and can do so safely."

Thomas calls this "dog fascism," and it`s at this point in the review that dog owners probably will sniff and stop reading, and dog lovers, like their canine companions, may want to sniff this out more. Thomas, the author of several books on animal life, among them the best-selling "The Hidden Life of Dogs" and "The Tribe of the Tiger," is not weepy, sappy or weird about her love of dogs. She`s an anthropologist by training.

"I`m not a scientist," she declares. "I am merely a chronicler with a respect for science."

In "Social Lives," she chronicles the "mixed-species household" in which she lives. It includes her husband, various dogs, cats and birds. She focuses on the dogs and their individual sagas. Most have found their way into Thomas` life not as puppies, but as older dogs who have experienced various kinds of traumas, including abandonment, confinement and neglect. In the case of Pearl, no traumas were known, and yet the Aussie/Chow mix "made an art of barking," Thomas writes, noting that Pearl would even bark at a fly.

"One of our dearest friends and most frequent visitors was the writer, Vladmimir Pistalo, a Serbian, and he felt that Pearl was ethnically Serbian. She was, he said, a deeply suspicious dog."

Rather than try to change this behavior in Pearl, Thomas thought she "might as well try to learn from it. ... I was glad I did, because I learned that Pearl barked in several different voices," and came to learn what those different voices were. Sundog, whom Thomas finds sitting on her mother`s porch one day, is the kind of dog one always remembers, long after he is gone. The quiet, reserved yellow Lab is not initially welcomed into the household by Thomas` husband, yet the two become inseparable over the years. While each animal comes into Thomas` life at a different point, and with a different background, all of them share a crucial dog-like trait: They want to belong to a group. It doesn`t matter that one is more dominant than another; dogs want a place in the pack, she writes - even if that place is last place.

Thomas chides humans for feeling that they must show their dogs who`s boss, lest Fido up and think he can start managing the household finances.

"Take with a grain of salt the very prevalent notion that your dog must at all times and at all costs be totally dominated by you," she writes. "Almost every dog has a perfect understanding of his household`s hierarchy and he knows he is not and never will be the dominant member. Nor does he necessarily want to be."

Thomas` tales are sensitively told and come from the heart. She minimizes "advice," not caring much for it in the first place. She does believe, and dog lovers (not owners) will agree, that "An unwholesome attitude is quite prevalent in this country about the need to rigidly control dogs. ..."

"A castrated or spayed purebred dog who was taken from its mother at an early age, raised entirely by our alien species and trained to excel in an obedience trial is the paradigm for correct dog management."

This life is as unnatural as that of a circus elephant. Yet dogs are expected to adjust to it, and most of them do, often so subtly and inconspicuously that we are unaware of what they`re doing. The credit is not ours but theirs."

And credit to Thomas for making us think a little deeper about the animals who gives us so much love and ask so little in return. They deserve better.

- Suzanne Choney

(c) Visit Copley News Service

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