I hate having thoughts like that when I’m behind the wheel. Unfortunately, Ph.D.s as a group are known for a tendency to lapse into Deep Thought upon the least provocation, and to do so regardless of whatever they were doing before the Deep Thought Attack occurred. If we’re lucky, all we were doing was having a cup of coffee, or watching a bird. All too frequently, it happens in the middle of giving a lecture, or cooking dinner, or having a conversation. Today, it happened while I was driving to work.
Fortunately, the first question was triggered by an onslaught of skanky old-school disco music erupting from my car speakers. I’d been listening to the first copy of The Clash’s “London Calling” I’ve owned in twenty years. The intervening decades had served, mercifully, to expunge “Lover’s Rock” from my memory banks, and it was extremely upsetting to find it filling my car. Following hard on the heels of that rocky jerk to awareness was the second question, also fairly disconcerting. A few moments of inspecting my surroundings yielded the answer: In Holyoke. I was able to infer, based on my direction, that while in my Meditative Fugue I’d decided to take Secret Ninja Route Number 3 to avoid the construction along the interstate.
What was I thinking about, that caused me to teleport in my car ten miles down the road? Two things, on alternating tracks: horses, and cost accounting. These two subjects, strangely enough, are connected. I’ll start with the horse, because anything with a horse is more interesting than anything without a horse, in my book.
I am trying to decide whether I want to buy a horse. Of course, I want to buy a horse – this is about whether I want to buy a horse, as in a particular horse, and do I want to buy a horse now. This would be my first horse, and for anyone who doesn’t know this already, deciding to buy a horse is like deciding to adopt a kid. Unlike with making your own children, you usually get to pick which horse you want, and you have some latitude in when that happens. Otherwise, it’s kind of the same. You’re planning to add a member to your family that will consume a vast number of resources, and you are doing this with the expectation of having (usually) a particular kind of relationship – with hopes and dreams and fears – with the new member. It’s not like getting a dog, or a cat, or even a parrot, because while you do want to interact with those pets, their job is mostly to hang around and be cute and warm and cuddly. Or to tear the limbs off of thieves and invaders, but I think for most people it’s about companionship.
With horses, it’s companionship, but to a lesser degree because no matter how goofy you are about them, they don’t live in the house and they don’t sleep on your bed and they don’t ride around in your car. Unless your horse is Patches, of course. No, horses are typically supposed to perform some kind of job in exchange for their board, and usually that job involves acting as a mode of transportation. Transporting you down leafy trails or over rocky mountains, transporting you in loops around a ring, transporting you over a jump, transporting you into a herd of cows. They’re meant to be ridden, but they’re prone to accidents and bizarre diseases with names from the fourteenth century, like “mud fever” and “strangles” and “poll evil” and the dreaded navicular and colic. They’re prone to parasitic infestations with equally colorful names: bot flies, strongyles, horse flies, deer flies, black flies. And that doesn’t include all of the vile stuff horses do to each other, like biting, or weird vices they can develop, like cribbing (a complicated obsessive-compulsive problem where the horse grabs onto a piece of wood with its teeth, arches its neck up and quickly sucks in a bubble of air, making a belching noise. This messes up their teeth, sounds disgusting, destroys pieces of the stable, and gives them a buzz, so it’s also addictive. They learn to do it from watching each other. This, alone, tells you many important things about the way a horse mind works).
So as with kids, if you start to think about the 100,000,000,000 devastating things that can possibly go wrong and ruin their lives, and possibly yours along the way, you wind up never doing it. And then you miss out on the Wonder Of It All.
That’s the stuff that can go wrong with any horse – and then you get into the stuff that can go wrong with a particular horse. This horse I’m thinking about is on the older side. I think he’d be about 55 in people years. I was caught up in thinking about the stuff that could happen. This horse could die. He could become unrideable. He could become impossible to sell.
Somewhere around “The Guns of Brixton” – this is all cogitating to the Sweet Sound of 1979’s best punk – I switched tracks abruptly to cost accounting. Today’s class was about uncertainty and biases and how to handle those things effectively in decision-making. People don’t spend enough time considering uncertainty, in general. It’s uncomfortable. And, well, it’s mysterious because it’s, well, uncertain. A lot of the time, what people do is to sink their head in the sand like an ostrich and pray that it goes away – which it frequently does, but by then, it’s too late to make a good decision. The best way is to examine your problem thoroughly, lay out the uncertainties, decide which of them you can make go away and which you can’t, clear up the stuff you can, and expand your plans for the stuff you can’t. A key factor here is in knowing what’s relevant. If some factor is going to be the same for both of your options, it’s not relevant. No matter what you decide, you’re going to have that factor come into play.
I meditated briefly on that and became distracted by the total god-awfulness of the example problem I’d found for the students to work on their skills in exploring uncertainty. This thing came out of what is in the main a very good book, but on occasion, it falls flat on its face. And I realized, in Brixton, this was one of those moments. It presented a situation where a hospital administrator needed to make an investment decision. So far, so good – should we get a CT scanner, or an MRI? Should we have a state-of-the-art surgical suite, or expand the neonatal intensive care? These are sensible. The one in the book problem was not: this administrator was having to decide between buying a bunch of heart monitors (ok) or a hotel (?!?!?!). Yes. Heart monitor vs. hotel. I just don’t know in what world this makes any sense at all. It’s ludicrous.
Right around then I got the 1979 Punk Disco Blast from the Past and woke up, thinking how in the heck did I get from the horse to the hospital administrator? Then it hit me. Like a moron, I’ve been dwelling on the fact that this horse is older and [impossibly long list of things] could go wrong with him. But – as I was about to teach thirty other people – it’s not relevant if it won’t change based on the decision. My decision is not “do I buy a horse” but “do I buy this horse”. And any horse is going to have [impossibly long list of things] that could go wrong, and I was assuming, thanks to some kind of weird Age Bias I didn’t know I had, that age had anything to do with this. The internet is absolutely bursting with people who have young unrideable horses, and for every one of those, there is also someone with a geriatric horse that jumps.
Wow, I felt like a total moron. Partly because of using irrelevant information and biases, which I teach people every year not to do, and partly because I zoned out behind the wheel of a moving car. Proof that the learning process never stops, for teachers either, and also proof that distracted driving doesn’t just come from cell phones and texting.
Here is a weirdly delicious use for all of those radish tops you have lying around the house from your CSA box this week. It has a surprisingly delicate flavor and makes a very good first course. It’s probably not enough for a whole meal.
Radish Top Soup
6 Tb butter
1 cup chopped onions or leeks
8 cups loosely packed radish leaves
2 cups diced peeled potatoes
6 cups liquid (water, chicken stock)
1/2 cup cream (optional)
Freshly ground pepper
Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan, add onions or leeks, and cook until golden, approximately 5 minutes. Stir in radish tops, cover pan, and cook over low heat until wilted, 8-10 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook potatoes until soft in liquid along with 1 teaspoon salt. Combine with radish tops and broth, and cook, covered, for 5 minutes to mingle flavors. Puree finely in a food processor. Add cream if desired. Season to taste with butter, salt and pepper.
And sort of a nice Ta-Ta to Summer for you: