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By Tom Demerly.

It is beautiful here. Just breathtakingly beautiful. Symmetrically rolling, high hills wear layers of green trees. Between them brilliant, sparkling rivers flow. Majestic bridges cross them, and on them drive trucks and cars. There are farms and churches in the valleys. And this is one of the most beautiful places in all of America.

This happened very recently, and I cannot tell you where I am, but this story is entirely true.

It’s race day. A long adventure race that will take competitors in canoes, on mountain bikes and on foot over challenging terrain for 30-hours non-stop. It’s a tough one, double the length of an Ironman triathlon. To make it tougher, athletes carry all their gear on their backs and have to navigate the course using map and compass.

At the start athletes line up on top of a green grassy rise that slopes down to a crystal river shimmering in the early morning sunrise. Conditions are perfect. People are ready to go, canoes lining the river.

Not many spectators here. Just a few family and race volunteers who followed the athlete buses out to the course. Until today, the location of the start remained secret.

A race volunteer fumbles with the portable P.A. system and an iPod, trying to que up the National Anthem as athletes fidget with bulging anticipation to just get this race going. The scratchy speakers thump and hum, but no anthem. The darn thing isn’t working.

One voice, booming with authority, in the center of the line of athletes and toward the back, where a team leader would position himself to oversee his team and steer the canoe, that one voice rises up.

“Ohh, say can you see…?”

And all other voices are joined in by the end of the next line.

“Through the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed, at the twilight’s last gleaming?”

Nearly every person in the race, every team, every member, every volunteer joins in the singing of our National Anthem. Some don’t exactly know the words, they may be young and never learned them, or they may be my age and it’s been a long time since 5th grade, but they fumble through it the way they heard it at a baseball game or on TV or at their kid’s hockey tournament. It sounds pretty good, and it unites the people who, for the next thirty hours will do battle with rough terrain and long distances all the way to the finish.

But the man who started this triumphant chorus will never see that finish line. He will die on the course a few hours from now of natural causes. He was a father, husband, son, Army Ranger, combat veteran and fine man. The people who were with him just before a serious heart problem took him said his last remarks were something like, “It is just so beautiful out here.”

And it was.

One man rose the chorus of our national anthem that race morning. He understood the meaning of that anthem. He knew that to deny our anthem, or our flag, is to deny the things we hold dearest: freedom of speech, liberty, courage. The man who began singing the anthem protected the protester, preserved freedom of speech and expression, risked his life in battle for those ideals and educated himself about the depth and value of their meaning.

He knew what our anthem truly means. It was the last song he ever sang.

I can still clearly hear that last line;

“For the land of the free! And the home… of the… brave!”

Our National Anthem unites us in the principles we hold dearest, it does not divide us along the gritty arguments that punctuate democracy. We argue and protest and disagree and debate because of the ideals celebrated in our anthem.

So, if you are a dissenter, a protester, a contrarian, then sing your anthem louder still. The country it celebrates guarantees your right to voice your opinion. The bombs bursting in air did so to protect your opinion and liberate your will. They will undoubtedly do so again as history’s tragic precedent teaches us.

To not sing our anthem is to cower and live in shadow and ignorance. It is not understanding what those verses stand for. Not standing or singing during the National Anthem is not a protest, it is a misunderstanding of the significance of that song that espouses our basic principles of liberty and free speech.

Not standing does not celebrate our freedom to protest. It only acknowledges our growing vulnerability to ignorance.

 

 

By Tom Demerly.

Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. 1973-2017.

During the last 72 hours, I’ve written three articles read around the world about the death of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Eric Schultz. They talk about his career, and they guess at his mission at the time of his death.

But they say nothing about the man himself, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

During my research one photo continued to come up. The photo you see here of Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, USAF. It is on hundreds of articles written about him around the world in many languages. He is seated in the cockpit of a U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, the Air Force’s newest, most advanced aircraft. I’ve seen that photo a lot over the last few days, but tonight was the first opportunity I had to spend some time looking at it carefully.

Who was Lt. Col. Eric Schultz and what does his life and passing mean to Americans and people around the world? I never met him, at least not that I know of, but I will try to explain what I have learned about him over the last few days to you.

Lt. Col. Schultz earned six degrees including a PhD in aerospace engineering. He had difficulty becoming a pilot because of his eyesight early on, but he did not let that stop him.

Based on what I’ve learned, Schultz never stopped, never gave up. Or, if he did give up once or twice as any human being occasionally does, he gathered himself from whatever setback he had, like his vision preventing the Air Force from initially taking him as a pilot, and then he got back to work. Schultz typified, in every way that I have read, the American ideal. Fortitude, integrity, selfless service, courage and more.

In his final role in the U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Schultz effectively disappeared from normal life. No Facebook page, no LinkedIn page, no Instagram, no Pinterest. He took a job that required him to live and work quietly and honorably well behind the scenes in a role that could sell a million books and pack theaters with its story. But Schultz did all this silently, humbly, with integrity and honor and commitment to something he believed was greater than himself; his country.

However cliché it is to say, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz had The Right Stuff. A modern-day Chuck Yeager or Neil Armstrong who worked behind the veil of national security doing things we’d likely all find hard to believe. It is an irony of military service and the fickle nature of history that the greatest heroes often remain anonymous. Such is the case with Eric Schultz.

In short, Lt. Col. Eric Schultz was a hero and a role model. He is the American ideal. A man made of his own accord, with clear vision of his goals and steadfast resolve to achieve them. His goals were selfless and difficult. Schultz’s service benefitted the Air Force in ways we will likely never read about. His work spanned the globe, took him to war and cemented our ongoing peace at home that we enjoy today.

When internet banter criticizes the cost of a defense program or spins a wild conspiracy theory about the government, it does so on the parchment of a free press that Lt. Col. Eric Schultz silently protected. The delicate balance of peace here within our borders is insulated only by the tireless and quiet toil of the few people like Lt. Col. Schultz. We live and think and speak freely because of their vigilance and dedication. If for one instant you doubt this consider the building pressure that presses inward against our lives from countries like North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and too many more to list. They remain at bay preserving our frail, precious bubble of freedom because of the very few people like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz.

I’m privileged to meet and work with the women and men of our Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army, Coast Guard and Homeland Security and our intelligence agencies frequently in my job. It is the best part of my job. They elevate me, hold me to a higher standard that I know I can never match. They make me believe in heroes and know that they exist. And they remind me that the simple liberties we so commonly take for granted like weaving tales of possible secret projects in hidden deserts are so tremendously precious, and so incredibly frail. I make it a point to shake the hand of a pilot or a Marine or an aircrew member or a maintainer or a soldier or a sailor when I meet them. I hold their hand tight for a moment, hoping that some of what they have will somehow pass over to me. I have heroes, and they are mine.

I am thankful for heroes like Lt. Col. Eric Schultz, and dreadfully empty when we acknowledge their loss. Their passing weakens the fabric of our nation, makes us vulnerable until someone else steps up to try to stand their place on the wall.

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Yesterday someone whose opinion I value told me, “You hate the government.”

I was stunned by this summation.

I don’t hate the government.” I thought to myself. “In fact, I am often a formal, working part of the government.

Where did this broad stroke about my emotions toward the government come from? What caused it to happen? Why do we create these opaque and rigid summations?

It occurred to me that the most interesting, and I’ll suggest threatening thing, about a four-letter summation of any belief set, any person, any group is that it is convenient. And convenience is comforting.

Living with me is anything but comforting, orderly and convenient. I am a weird guy, given to remarkably reasoned insights, absurdly chaotic ones and everything in between. I hate furniture, love open space, and fill it with a clutter of superfluous gear and books. I am kind to animals, believe in some form of gun control and own guns. I believe in peace but work in an industry whose mission is war. I like the government but believe it should be smaller and more efficient. None of who I am is congruent or follows a convenient narrative. I don’t fit into anyone’s tidy little four-word box. Even if you try to suggest, “Tom Demerly is complicated”, it’s not that simple.

We live in an age of accelerating and proliferating media. And, as with nearly every new technology from the first crude stone age weapons to atomic power to social media, we develop the technology before we develop the mutually acceptable and broadly beneficial ways to employ it.

We think shit up and then figure out how to use it later. People driving while texting on cell phones is one example that comes to mind. The guys who invented the atom bomb are another.

As a result, the acceleration and proliferation of media has created a world of chaotic stimulus filled with billions of new voices, some of them skilled in delivery, all of them screaming at once in what feels like escalating volume and urgency.

The influx of stimulus is deafening and disorienting, and creates a kind of social or collective panic that, on an individual level, may make us yearn to make some de facto sense of it all. We want one thing we can hang onto, one set of things to believe, one unimpeachable, unassailable truth to comfort us and still our cognitive waters.

Imagine a world where the distance from one end to the other of a thirty six-inch, three-foot-long yardstick changed arbitrarily. No two peoples’ yardstick reading thirty-six inches was actually the same length. It would be immensely confusing and chaotic.

Quickly, people would gravitate toward a consensus on the physical dimension of the thing we call a “36-inch, three-foot yard”. The consensus may vary from broad region to region, especially those separated by wide geographical obstacles, like oceans and the metric system in Europe and Asia, and the imperial measures still used in the U.S. But broadly we would gravitate toward an emotionally convenient and culturally necessary convention on the physical dimension we referred to as “one yard, three-feet, 36-inches”. We would all get on the same measuring stick.

The need for a common social and cultural yardstick is what drives belief sets like common religions, desires, hatreds and prejudices. We like, and need, to all be on the same page, and in the chaotic world of fast, evolving media, the pages of modern media blow by like a book tossed in a hurricane.

In Gia Fu Feng and Jane English’s landmark translation of the philosophical masterwork by Lao Tzu, The Tao De Ching, it has been translated from Chinese that:

“All the Colors blind the eye.
All the sounds deafen the ear.
All the flavors numb the taste.
Too many thoughts weaken the mind.
Too many desires wither the heart.”

The Tao de Ching was written in about the fourth century B.C. Its origins likely came from even earlier, around the sixth century B.C. and took two centuries to summarize into the cryptic, lyrical haikus that we read today. When you read it, you have to stop and contemplate its meaning and context. It is light in text, heavy on interpretation.

The thesis of this passage from the Tao De Ching is that too much cognitive noise bothers us and may tend to make us gravitate toward the opposite extreme, very defined beliefs that can be distilled into a few words. Simple ideas to make sense of complex stimulus.

The remarkable phenomenon of life has never been as simple as a few words. It is complex. As this complexity is hurled at us in an acceleration and proliferation of media we struggle to make some sense of it. As a result, we summarize and rationalize, trying to cram ideas and people and events into convenient boxes as they come at us faster and faster in a rapidly accelerating and stressful game of cognitive whack-a-mole.

That is impossible. And undesirable. If things were simple, we’d get bored.

I’ll offer that exposure to the “drinking from a fire hose” consumption of social and news media benefits from taking some contrasting time of quiet contemplation, deep research into narrow topics for a more thorough insight and, most of all, strong individual reflection while trying to avoid cramming- and being crammed- into convenient thought boxes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

1. Preserve Price.

Tim Brick, owner of Brick Wheels, a successful independent bike retailer in Traverse City, Michigan told me years ago: “Never discount. You will only go out of business slower.”

Price preservation and the perception of what a product is worth has been destroyed by weak-kneed and undercapitalized bike retailers who give discounts too easily.

Sometimes they give discounts in the hopes of attracting more business, but discounted business is bad business, and it only earns the retailer a reputation for being a sucker to customers who drive a hard bargain. And soon they all drive a hard bargain.

Retailers also give discounts just to keep the lights on. Don’t do that. Just close the business, declare bankruptcy and get a job. The entire industry has been dragged down by incestuous and incessant discounting that has destroyed price integrity, brand identity and even alienated customers who don’t want to negotiate.

If there is one malignant cancer that pervades the entire retail bicycle industry, it is rampant discounting. The problem is so bad most retailers who do it are in total denial of it.

Bike industry, take one tip from a guy who has both succeeded and failed for four decades in this business: Stop Discounting.

2. Don’t Play Favorites: No Sponsored Athletes, No Club Discounts. 

When retailers play favorites with some highly visible athletes and groups through “sponsorships” and discounts, they alienate the rank n’ file average customer who subsidizes the cool girl and guy by paying full price. They train the consumership that through performance and visibility they earn special pricing.

This sends a clear message: Some people are more special than others and price is flexible.

Most importantly, there is no consistent, empirical business metric in small bicycle retail that quantifies how many full-margin additional sales are added to the bottom line by sponsoring anyone. And if you can’t accurately measure a sales promotion, you shouldn’t do it.

Sponsorships of athletes and clubs sends a message of favoritism and exclusion, rewarding persistence in driving pricing down.

Even if a sports marketing campaign were run correctly, as it is at the brand level (not by retail stores) it is extremely time consuming and expensive to manage. One beverage industry metric stated that for every $1 spent on sponsorship to automotive racing, the company budgeted $10 talking about the sponsorship in paid media. No bike retailer can afford the money or time for that. And if they could, they should start a beer brand and sponsor a NASCAR driver.

The most recognizable engagement ring brand, Tiffany’s, has never given a free or discounted sparkler to a Kardashian in exchange for publicity. Instead, news media reports, “Kardashian’s Tiffany Sparkler Was $25M!”. That preserves the perception of value and makes the brand aspirational.

3. Don’t Have Too Much Inventory. 

The worst thing about the bike business is bikes, and bike brands ram inventory down retailers’ throats with a vengeance. Bike shops: less is more. It is better to have money in the bank than bikes on the floor.

Bicycle inventory is like fruit, the second it lands it begins to spoil. Something newer, cooler and better is already under development and months away from release. And with the evolution in media the word about upcoming innovations doesn’t spread fast, it spreads instantly. As soon as something new is announced, what is suddenly old (but current only hours before) is suddenly devalued.

Customers will buy new, relevant bikes sight-unseen if the retailer’s sales process is optimized to facilitate that purchase format. That preserves capital, maintains freshness and keeps prices up. It also provides customers with more options and better integrity in the purchase.

Bike shops with a lot of inventory on the floor, and a lot of invoices on their desk, are compelled to “sell what we’ve got” and that leads to an ugly paradigm of putting customers on the wrong size bike with the wrong equipment rather than ordering the right bike and adding another invoice to the pile.

Consumers should be wary of bike shops with too many bikes on the floor, they’re going to try to ram something they have in stock down your throat just to make an invoice due date instead of getting you the bike you should really have.

4. Do Have Lots of Capital.

Nearly every bicycle retailer is undercapitalized and over leveraged financially. The reason is simple: When you have $500K to invest in something, does opening a bike shop provide the highest return on that investment? No, it doesn’t. You could take that $500K to an Edward Jones office and earn a better return on it the next day with no work than if you did the heavy lifting and ditch-digging of opening, promoting and running a bicycle retail store. As a result, most bike retailers try to start a business with about $50-200K and make a go of it.

If they don’t own their own real estate free and clear, have to pay rent or a mortgage, pay at least one employee payroll (and mandatory withholding taxes and health insurance) then the math doesn’t work.

To make bike retail profitable you have to have deep pockets and a deeper work ethic. You have to love hard work and business, not bikes and bike rides.

In its current iteration, the bicycle retail business model is a rotten investment. But, a new, emerging business model long on service and profit margin and short on inventory and overhead is promising and will be the bike shop of tomorrow.

5. Manage Costs.

This doesn’t mean go cheap. If your biggest overhead item is marketing then you are doing it right. If your customers arrive at your store and consistently say, “I thought this place would be a lot bigger”, you’re doing it right.

If you’re biggest overhead item is inventory, you are already in trouble.

Starting and maintaining a bike shop can be done very cheaply. Never buy new fixtures, so many used fixtures from other retailers that have been closed are available they can be had for pennies on the dollar. Never pay for extraneous and non-paying expenses like alarm systems (they won’t prevent or deter theft anyway) and subscriptions to POS software systems. Those don’t add to the bottom line.

Use low-cost, streamlined, highly adaptive and simple systems to combat the asymmetrical retail war the little bike shop has to fight against the big box e-commerce giants. Think of how the Afghan Guerillas used crude weapons to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, and still give the Americans fits in rural Afghanistan. Be a retail guerilla, a retail Taliban. Keep your costs low, adaptable and maintain a large amount of liquid capital.

6. Invest in Star Employees.

The online retailer you compete against is a faceless enemy. You can defeat him with a friendly face. If you have a star employee whom customers consistently ask for, reward them before anything else. Give them raises before you buy more bikes, pay them first and well and craft a set of “golden handcuffs” that makes it tough for them to go anywhere else. They are your brand, and if you lose them, you will have to rebuild your brand around another star employee. Worse yet, if you lose your star employee to another bicycle retailer across town or if your star opens their own shop, guess what happens, their customers follow them.

For a small bicycle retailer, the star employee is the single most important business tool. Develop them, value them, reward them, retain them.

7. Participate in the Sport. 

Instead of sponsoring the local hotshot, be the local hotshot. This doesn’t mean you have to do a nine-hour Ironman (but it helps) it just means you have to be present at events and participate credibly. This is a part of your business. It is work.

Set up the hours of your store so you can train. Close on key race weekends so you can be where the action is, as a part of the action. Ride the nicest bike you sell and show it off everywhere. Be an aspirational figurehead so when people see you on social media and in the store you have become “That Guy who Knows Everything and is Everywhere”.

If you build your hours correctly and manage your staff correctly the time you spend in the sport will directly and measurably bring full-price buyers into your store and keep them offline.

8. Differentiate Yourself. 

Build a voice, a brand and an identity. If your identity is so lifeless and generic that people confuse your business with others, you haven’t done that.

Understand that you will not please everyone. Nor is that the goal. If you talk about a donation to a wounded veteran’s charity in social media an anti-war activist may stop shopping with you. Fine. You can’t be everything to everyone.

Build your brand with clear vision and narrow focus. Don’t be generic. Don’t appeal to the masses. Keep your brand message narrow, unique and focused and be true to who you are.

If you are gay, fly the rainbow flag in front of your store and sponsor “Pride Rides”. If you are a veteran, have benefits for veteran’s organizations. If you are an animal rights activist, broadcast your donations to the local animal shelter and host an adoption day at your store. If you are an environmentalist, show your commitment to renewable energy and talk about how bikes preserve the environment.

Have the courage and identity to stand for something, be someone different and special. Brand yourself visibly and distinctly.

9. Be Highly Adaptive.

 Small bicycle retail is asymmetrical warfare: A small opponent taking on a much larger, better capitalized foe. Take a page from the teachings of Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Osama Bin Laden’s play book: Never fight fair.

Change your floorplan frequently. Bring in small, low-priced, easily purchased new products first. Seek out niche brands the big-box guys don’t have and use the equalizing power of social media to partner with the brand to promote them.

Build a reputation as a brutal buyer who torments sales reps and sales managers with non-adherence to “program” buying. If the biggest brands’ credit manager loves you but the sales manager hates you, you are doing it right.

Within your brand identity continue to change and adapt. Use every social media platform. Embrace new media. Use video. Never stop changing, evolving and promoting. There are two types of businesses on the retail battlefield: the quick and the dead. Improvise, adapt, overcome.

10. Have An Exit Strategy.

One day, this will all end. What will you have to show for it? Did you squirrel away money in an offshore account? Did you buy real estate? Is your brand developed enough to have some sales value? And, if you begin to fail, and chances are overwhelming that you will, do you have a viable safety net?

It’s a pipe dream to sell a small bicycle retail business. Frankly, they aren’t worth anything. The inventory is usually older than six months, the fixtures are stale, the employees may not come with the deal and rest can be reinvented elsewhere better and cheaper. As a result, you have to have a viable exit strategy.

What is yours? What is your end game? When do you cry “Uncle” and walk away? Know those answers in advance and you can sleep more soundly at night as a bike retailer.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Business rewards bastards. And Seton Claggett was never a bastard.

TriSports.com in Tucson, Arizona is closing after 17 years of being one of the largest, and one of the first, online triathlon retailers. TriSports.com helped invent, define, and then sink the triathlon industry.

What happened to TriSports.com is happening to all of the triathlon and high-end bicycle business, and it is worth looking at.

Seton Claggett, TriSports.com founder and President, messaged me early today with insights on why the business is closing:

“We are closing because I was in litigation with the bank that caused me to go into BK11 4+ years ago. We went to trial on breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and fraud. The judge ruled last week that the bank committed all of these but ultimately did not cause us any damages. I now owe them the original $1.8M (most of this would have been paid off by now) plus millions in attorney fees and costs.”

There will be a rush to judgment about what caused TriSports.com to close. Set against Claggett’s disclosure of bank litigation I’ll suggest it was not any singular reason that TriSports.com is closing, but rather a creeping, gradual, decade-long “death by a thousand cuts” that pervades an industry populated by people who like bikes and triathlons first, and do business second. Even though Claggett was not that man- he is a formally trained and gifted businessman- the rest of the industry weighed on pricing and distribution strategies. The Internet experts will have their say, but it’s unlikely many of them will understand the real reasons TriSports.com is closing and the industry as a whole is suffering.

The people still in the bike and triathlon business will pay no heed as the industry continues to contract and fails to adapt under the ruthless crush of economic reality and accelerating business change. I know because I have been one of those people- a business owner, and I did not change, so I know firsthand.

You can’t tell a small business owner anything. I’ve tried with four businesses I worked for; people tried it with me when I owned my own business before that. We never listen.

Until we lose everything, you can’t tell us anything.

I’ve seen five other bicycle and triathlon retailers ride their businesses into the ground. TriSports.com is just the biggest of us to close. It’s the 9/11, the Black Tuesday, the Automotive Recession, the Chernobyl, the Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island of the triathlon retail industry. Once the fallout clears, the industry will be radioactive for years and will only be habitable by ego-driven mutants of the small business world deformed by their bizarre and nonsensical toxic obsession with a sport and a “business” that eats its young, then consumes itself as their internal voice tells them, “I am the one who can get this right”.

They’re wrong. The triathlon business is no longer viable on any significant scale beyond hobby. There are a lot of reasons for that, enough to fill a book.

If you want a single narrative to the complex issue of triathlon business failings, then call it the same thing triathletes suffer from as a culture: hubris. I will, however, suggest that in the case of Seton Claggett and TriSports.com, he is a rare man largely immune to hubris.

I worked at TriSports.com for over two years in their bicycle, then marketing department. One memory of many defines the experience:

The employees of TriSports.com are high in the Arizona mountains outside the sleepy town of Show Low, Arizona. It’s a town named after a bet two prospectors made over a gold strike in the area. Both of them lost. We’re putting on the annual Deuces Wild Triathlon Festival, a series of endurance races in the high, wooded area surrounding Show Low.

Most of the about-50-person staff from TriSports.com drove from Tucson to Show Low, Arizona to help put on the Show Low Triathlon Festival. It’s a massive annual multisport event with kids’ races, various distance triathlons, an off-road triathlon and an orgy of the triathletes’ favorite endurance activity, getting free stuff. The event concludes with a giant raffle benefitting charity where tons, and I mean tons, of triathlon gear and schwag are given away for a charity donation- about the same volume of stuff sold in a small triathlon store in a year. But this is TriSports.com, and we are the largest. So, we can afford to give away tons of stuff for free people probably would have bought at full price anyway.

After the festivities are over it is time to clean up.

It’s hot out and Seton Claggett is addressing us while standing chest deep in disgusting, reeking garbage inside a trash hauling semi-trailer. Every one of us is exhausted, filthy, smelly, sore, hungry and sleep deprived.

“If we leave this mess here it goes against everything we stand for.” He tells our downtrodden mass of long-faced employee volunteers as the sun sags. It’s like a scene in a book about forced labor camps. This is the triathlon industry gulag, and I am exiled here like a less-intellectual retail Solzhenitsyn banished to the labor camps for my own personal failings in this business. Like Cool Hand Luke, I gotta get my mind right.

A key tenant of TriSports.com is environmental responsibility, and cramming all this garbage into the back of a couple semis to dump in a landfill is against Seton Claggett’s molecular make-up as an environmentalist, former boy scout, parent and business owner. It is against the Little Red Book of TriSports.com doctrine.

Despite the sickening, nose-permeating stench of rotting banana peels under the high Arizona sun, dirty bottles filled with congealing sports drinks, discarded race equipment soaked in athlete urine, changed diapers from spectators’ toddlers and all the other disgusting offal produced by a couple thousand athletes and their closest friends, Seton wants us to sort the garbage by hand into bins for environmentally responsible recycling and processing.

Claggett is clamped onto the ethos of environmental responsibility like the face-hugger in “Alien”. The Claggetts have two kids, and Seton’s life mission is to leave the world a better place than he found it for those kids, and for everyone else. Seton and Debbie Claggett’s unswerving attachment to environmentalism isn’t corporate feel-good window dressing. They own it. Environmental responsibility and a doctrine of leaving things better than you found them is in Claggett’s DNA, and he has cloned it into the corporate DNA of TriSports.com and its culture. Not to sell more stuff, but because Claggett doesn’t just believe it’s the right thing to do, he knows it is the right thing to do.

And now he stands chest deep is piss-smelling filth to prove it. And prove it he does.

One by one employees slowly churn into action, pulling trash bags out of the back of the disgusting mess, opening the garbage bags, pulling out discarded wet wipes with… something brown on them. It’s not just gross, it’s fucking gross. But Claggett somehow walks the walk with enough conviction he inspires the entire staff to wade into the offal and begin sorting the revolting mess into neatly organized recycling barrels.

Claggett somehow inspires a crew of tired, volunteer employees to sort filthy garbage by hand in the dark after consecutive 14-hour workdays. Show me a leader strong enough to inspire that, and I will show you Seton Claggett.

A couple hours later, in the dark, we stink like hell and the world is a slightly better place. Claggett himself is covered in filth, and the last to stop working. I have found a new hero.

The Claggetts defined themselves repeatedly with acts of generosity and kindness both large and small. When Seton saw me riding my bike to an airshow loaded down with camera equipment early one weekend morning he secured a pass for me to the Air Force base and took me with him to a private air show during the Heritage Flight Conference at Davis-Monthan AFB. When my cat Frederick died of old age Debbie had every employee sign a sympathy card for me. I still have that card.

The charity and giving doctrine of the Claggetts was infectious. It spread like a smiley-faced plague through the building. After riding my bike to work one day in a rare Tucson downpour the Human Resource Director, a woman named Susan, found dry clothes for me to put on and a towel. When I obsessively worked 70-hour weeks she counseled me for working too many hours.

But heroes are fallible and complex, and Seton Claggett is no exception. Claggett was oddly fixated on loading the dishwasher in the employee kitchen correctly. He produced a YouTube tutorial video on the correct procedure, lectured employees at meetings on the correct process and even installed a video camera over the dishwasher to verify compliance. Where did that come from? I chalk it up to Claggett’s penchant for clear thinking and process. He is a smart man, a man of organized thought, spreadsheets and analytical problem solving. To him it is incomprehensible that a person could not load a dishwasher correctly, and that detail mattered. It was a teachable moment.

The dishwasher conundrum.

The story of TriSports.com and the rise and fall of the triathlon industry deserves to be told. It’s a complex story not well suited for Internet chat room fodder. It is more complex, both worse, and better. It doesn’t fit in a 1300 word blog.

If Seton Claggett had opened a software company, an app developer, a social media outlet or any other emerging business I’ll suggest we would mention his name alongside Gates, Jobs, Buffett and Zuckerberg. Claggett is a tirelessly hard-working man with a Masters in business and a deep, analytical mindset and strong stomach for risk. Unfortunately for him his first round of entrepreneurship was spent on an industry filled largely by people long on enthusiasm for the sport, too quick to give a discount and short on business acumen.

I wager Seton Claggett’s next round at business will conclude very differently.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

Author Peter Benchley’s marginally successful novel “Jaws” was released as a movie 42 years ago today. The film shattered box office records, rewrote the rules on movie release methods and touched off a succession of progressively awful sequels and occasionally credible documentaries that continue to fuel fascination- and mostly unreasonable fear of sharks- to this day.

Since “Jaws” every shark attack makes headlines. Nearly everyone remembers seeing the film with its shocking surprise visuals and its oddly floppy fake rubber robot shark. But most terrifyingly, everyone remembers the scenes in the water when you can see… nothing.

Director Steven Spielberg did an incredible job of building tension and terror in the unknown with soundtrack, lighting, foreshadowing and a looming sense of unseen menace. And of course, those two low notes of music that now universally signal impending doom: “duh…DUH.”

Speilberg’s skill was so effective it has created several generations of people with an irrational fear of the water, absurd notions about sharks as wanton maneaters and a general and wholly unwarranted misconception about the sea.

My girlfriend was afraid of the water. Not just what was in it, but even putting her face in it. Eight weeks later she swam unprotected at 70-feet depth off Roatan Island in Honduras in a school of 10-foot sharks in a feeding frenzy while I photographed her. Her only anxiety stemmed from my penchant to swim too far away from her to try to photograph, and pet, the swirling mass of “man eaters” as they swam around us.

My girlfriend Jan at 80-feet depth in a school of nice-sized reef sharks.

The truth is, sharks aren’t really that dangerous. In fact, I’ve spent years and thousands of dollars in travel and equipment just to find them for the chance to swim with them. And when I have been successful, which takes time, money and work. I have always been rewarded. They are beautiful and majestic. Often they are even gentle and playful.

I have swum in schools of sharks, petted sharks, fed sharks, and photographed sharks while in the water with them. No cages. Not one has ever tried to bite me. One shark in Curaçao demonstrated aggressive behavior toward me, she may have been playing with me, but she was big and she and I did not speak the same language so I simply swam away from her. She left.

Sharks are not wanton killing machines as Peter Benchley’s fictional novel suggests. Benchley’s novel is based loosely on a real life incident that took place between July 1 and July 12 in 1916 along the New Jersey coastline and, oddly, far up a small, brackish water rivulet named Matawan Creek. Sharks, or a single shark, attacked five people. Four of the victims died, more from poor first aid in 1916 than the severity of their wounds. One survived their attack.

The 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened as American news media was growing and people were on summer holiday. It made for sensational (and grossly embellished) headlines. It sold newspapers, pamphlets and books. And it created an absurd level of hysteria and fear so vast it continues today. Talk to any modern triathlon competitor about their biggest fear, and they will tell you it is swimming in the open ocean.

While the 1916 Jersey Shore attacks were terrifying, they were a bizarre anomaly likely attributable to a unique happenstance in shark behavior. A large shark was likely confused by the moon phase that influenced the tide and accidentally swam upriver as the water salinity (salt levels in sea water) increased in the usually fresh water. As the shark became increasingly distressed, it became increasingly aggressive and panicked. And it bit people. The same behavior is common from a squirrel, a house cat or a panicked dog. But a medium size shark can inflict a larger bite than a dog.

Since Benchley’s novel and Spielberg’s movie was released conservationists have had to wage war on the terror-driven misconceptions that have caused unreasonable fear and wanton killing of sharks. To this day the unwarranted fear continues, not only of sharks, but of the ocean in general.

Could a shark bite you? It could. But the chances are more than remote. They’re astronomical, even when you are in the water with sharks. Think about this, if you were on a street with three strange dogs would you be panicked about them attacking you? Common sense dictates you observe their behavior and go about your business. The exact same is true of sharks. Even the rarest of sharks, the holy grail of shark spotting, the great white shark, is relatively placid when not feeding. If you are ever lucky enough to actually find one it will likely swim away in disinterest.

Our fear of sharks and the ocean is like nearly all fears. It is founded in lore and ignorance. The remedy is learning and understanding while developing a strong respect for this vast remaining wilderness and the marvelous creatures that live in it.

 

Author Tom Demerly will pet just about anything, even sharks, but never catches any fish. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly and Jan Mack for tomdemerly.com

An elderly man and woman driving eastbound on Hines Drive under Telegraph Road in Dearborn Heights were rescued from serious injury or worse after a crash and vehicle fire on Wednesday, June 14, at approximately 5:15 PM by passing cyclists Nate Nalder, 41, of Dearborn, Michigan and friend Dave Taylor.

Nalder, an experienced road cyclist who frequently trains along Hines Drive, told us, “Dave Taylor and I were riding down Hines, going west. Just after we passed under Telegraph we saw a white, late model Ford Fusion driving across the lawn on the other side of the walking path. It was moving fast across the grass, maybe 45-50 MPH. It came back toward Hines, we heard a loud ‘boom’ and the car rolled three times.”

An unidentified male was driving the vehicle with a female in the passenger seat. The occupants of the vehicle were described as “elderly”. According to witnesses at the scene of the accident, a medical incident may have affected the driver. The cause of the accident has not been officially determined.

When cyclist Nate Nalder saw the accident happen he turned back toward the place where the vehicle came to rest. “I hurried and checked the traffic real quick and rode back to the car and dropped my bike and ran there to the driver’s side and pounded on the window.”

Nalder was attempting rescue from the driver’s side door, but heard a voice from the passenger side shout, “Help me, I’m trapped, get me out of here.”

The airbags in the vehicle had deployed and the interior filling with smoke. The vehicle began burning shortly after it came to rest.

“I said, ‘We got to get them out of here!’ said Nalder, directing rescue efforts of bystanders.  “I did not know the extent of his injuries so I asked him to undo his own seatbelt to kind of assess his condition. Myself and two others guys helped him out and walked him over and set him down.”

As the fire spread, and without regard for his personal safety, Nalder returned to the burning vehicle to recover the female passenger and move her to a safe distance. Another cyclist had arrived on the scene to assist Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor in the rescue. A passing motorist had stopped on the scene and phoned 911 for assistance.

It is possible that, because of the age of the vehicle occupants and the possible medical condition of the driver, the swift selfless actions of Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor at the scene prevented more serious injury from the fire or fatalities as a result of the crash and fire.

According to the account Nalder heard from the passenger of the vehicle, who was transported from the scene by emergency personnel, the driver lost the ability to control the vehicle, possibly due to a medical incident. The passenger was able to grab the steering wheel but could not control the pedals because the driver’s legs were in the way. The passenger steered the vehicle off the road away from other cars but could not control the speed of the vehicle. It struck a pole and rolled several times.

Cyclist Nate Nalder, 41, of Dearborn, Michigan and friend Dave Taylor rescued motorists from a burning vehicle on Hines Drive on Wednesday.

When we asked cyclist Nate Nalder what made him decide to respond by pulling the victims from the burning car and how he had learned to respond to an accident situation he told us:

“When I was younger in high school I was riding in the back seat of a Jeep and came over a hill and accidentally hit a friend who was walking across the street. I just jumped out and helped. It was the automatic thing to do I guess. I grew up being a Boy Scout, doing a lot of lifeguarding classes and learning CPR. Just learning how to take care of a person when they are hurt. Something just said, ‘Get over there and do what you can to help because no one else was’ I was the first person to that car I guess.”

The quick, selfless actions of Nate Nalder and Dave Taylor at the accident scene almost certainly prevented further injury to the two vehicle occupants once the car began burning.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com


 It was like the beginning of a favorite new song. It began quietly, and you could barely hear it. The soft cooing of a distant sound, a trilling that seemed reassuring and comforting. The world was safe. Everything was all right. It was home and warm and nature surrounded our little neighborhood. I listened to it in bed, shushing my girlfriend with our heads on the pillows, “Listen!” I whispered. There was silence in the dark. Then the gentle spring breeze carried the rising song. “It’s an owl! Can you hear it?” She did. “That’s a good sign. They trap mice and are good for the environment and the neighborhood. He probably lives at the end of the block down by the park.”

We drifted off to sleep to his quiet, lilting song. It made for an easy transition to dreams of rolling, wooded hills filled with friendly owls building nests, cooing their gentle songs while sitting on tree branches as wise, powerful sentinels maintaining the delicate balance of nature.

The Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) is a relatively common small owl species found throughout the Midwest and into Canada. It eats mice, rodents, and has adapted well to a suburban environment.

Owls are oddly social and friendly birds to humans. One very early morning a few years ago in Mission Viejo, California I saw an owl swoop down, glance off the windshield of an SUV driving in the early morning darkness, then drop into the street. I walked over to him, he appeared stunned in the middle of the street but otherwise, hopefully, OK. I spoke to him for a moment, asked him if he was OK. His feathery owl head pivoted to my voice. He looked confused, stunned. I scooped him up carefully in my arms, his soft feathers delicate to the feel.

I don’t know how to take care of an owl. I figured I would bring him home, get him a drink and make a little nest for him and take it from there. He was large, the size of a small cat, and very beautiful. He was also exceptionally well mannered, riding in my arms comfortably as if he knew I was trying to help.

In only a block of walking he had composed himself from the brush with calamity. He spread his wide wings carefully even as I held him, then gently lifted off with a downward flap and flew out of my arms. He did one circle over my head, as if to demonstrate he was fine and say thank you for the help, then he flew east up toward the mountains on the outskirts of town. Helping the owl felt like religion. It was like being visited, and blessed, from another world. A kinder, fairer world.

When I heard the owl outside our window here in Dearborn, Michigan I was elated. This is a great omen, a sign that our neighborhood is blessed and safe and well looked after. That things are in balance and that nature and mankind have arrived at a reasonable détente.

But then reality smashed home.

The quiet song disappeared. The owl was found in the street, his eyes barely open, standing on the ground. Confused, sick, in deep trouble.

A Good Samaritan named Jamie found the owl in the street a few days later around 10 PM. She said he was half dead. She picked him up, called the University of Michigan Emergency Veterinary Hospital. She was on the phone with them, getting instructions for how to save the owl as she held him in her arms. He opened his eyes once and she spoke to him as she held him. Then he closed his eyes.

They never opened again.

The owl in our neighborhood died because someone put out rat poison to try to control mice. But the problem with poison is it doesn’t know to only kill mice. It kills everything. The mouse eats the poison, the owl eats the mouse. The owl dies too. And we are left in a world without the owl’s song. It’s a world different than intended. A world that is ruled by our poison, literal and moral.

Using poison to control animals is wrong and immoral. We learned that in the 1950’s and ’60’s with DDT poisoning, and countless times since. It’s also ineffective and short-sighted. The owl was in charge of controlling rodent populations and did an effective job. He maintained a manageable balance of nature. When that is disrupted the results are always different than we imagine, and never better. But our human, insatiable need to control things drive these short-sighted and selfish decisions like using poison to kill a mouse.

You can buy things and you can build things. A fancy house, a yard that looks like a golf course. It proves you are rich and fancy. But you are driving a wedge into the world that pries things apart and ruins what was here before us and will hopefully return when we are gone. We are not better or smarter or stronger or more important. We’re temporary participants in a complex process. When we upset the process we spread suffering, not only to animals around us but to our own lives, often without even know it.

When I think of the most important events in my life, the most extraordinary, the most valuable and lasting they are not the day I bought a car or a house. I actually don’t remember much about those things. But I remember the owl in the street in California. I remember the song of the owl down the block. These things had value. They reminded me that I am part of something bigger and that, if I care for it, it will care for me.

But when the owl down the street went silent I suddenly felt very alone.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

This past Presidential election was one of the most divisive and closely contested in the past three decades. We’re still arguing about the outcome. It was set against a backdrop of new participant media. Everybody with social media has a voice of equal visual size, if not reach.

Because of this our closely contested and highly divisive election played out over the stage of social media. And now it feels like we’ve entered an era of rising hysteria.

Why?

From the printing press, the Manhattan Project, the Internet, stem cell research, and social media, we develop technology before we develop the ethics and conventions to employ it with moderation and reason. We just turn it loose, and hope for the best. We’re experiencing that now with social media and in politics.

We’ve entered an era of more polarized and less moderate opinion shared at louder volume than I’ve known in my 55-year lifetime, and maybe in the history of mankind. Author/philosopher Alan Watts once recounted a tour of the MIT campus where the vast and numerous science and engineering facilities were showcased with pride and grandeur, but when someone asked where the philosophy department was, the response was, “Oh, I think it is somewhere over by the library.”

Some of that may be good. But a lot of it isn’t. At least not yet.

There is an axiom that if you redistribute the collective monetary wealth of the planet equally between all people it will, over time, wind up right back with the people who originally had it, and away from those who didn’t.

But what if you equally distributed access to publishing media? To having a public voice? The same outcome might happen in contributory/social media, and for the same reasons. People may not use it responsibly and with reason. So, just as those who would not be good at managing monetary resources would fall victim to those who are, those who do not use communicational resources responsibly will stop getting listened to and lose their voice to those with more judicious use of media. But before they do lose their voice they raise the volume and frequency in one last, desperate attention grab.

We are at the leading edge of that redistribution of voice right now. Everyone has a voice now, and most people love using it, but aren’t quite sure what to say except that they should say something. And, in a new global room full of rising voices we continue to shout louder and louder to be heard above the rising din. And few people take the time to listen. I’m constantly reminded of that great axiom, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The formerly mainstream news media is included in the rising number and volume of voices and opinions. In order to compete with Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, Snapchat, and Instagram attention grabbing, the formerly mainstream media has had to change to also grab attention. Much of that change isn’t for the better. That has influenced our own behavior, but mostly it has influenced theirs. For mainstream media now, it looks and reads like, the rules are, there are no rules.

So the shouting gets louder and louder, more and more frequent. And as the frequency increases the depth of insight seems to become shallower, more superficial. Sound bytes, YouTubes, hotlinks and infographics are batted back and forth in some new form of cyber argument that mimics a fast and loose version of the Greek forums, where debate raged between scholars in a public forum.

We’ve seen two examples of this in the ongoing, divisive political narrative. Some time ago an expired rock star, Ted Nugent, ignited rancor with radical right commentary that included inciting violence as a political tool. That’s wrong, no matter the political agenda. Every despot has proved that. More recently, an equally less relevant celebrity, Kathy Griffin, depicted the President’s decapitated head in a sensational lampoon that also suggested inciting violent response as a political tool, at least as commentary. That is also wrong.

Both are wrong. Both went too far. Both are a sensational attention grab for a waning career. And both sides argue some justification for each one’s bizarre and extreme political commentary. Both also illustrate our use- or misuse- of new access to media and our rising consumption of it.

One positive outcome has been the impetus to do more investigation into the media we see. That has been fascinating. It’s also helps shape opinions, hopefully to the more informed. And I’ll suggest a more informed opinion is likely to be more structurally sound.

Before the last presidential election I took an online survey that queries you on a long list of issues and, depending on your responses, prescribes who you should vote for. I got Bernie Sanders. I liked that, so I dug a little deeper into the ramifications of having Bernie Sanders as our President.

Voting for President is a little like going shopping without knowing any of the prices. The system tells you, “Pick out something nice, whatever you want.” But there are no prices and you may not even know how much you have to spend. You don’t get the bill until after you made it to the register. If you can’t afford what’s in your political shopping cart you either throw it on a charge card that has been maxed out since Nixon was President or you say, “The person in line behind me is paying.” Then they do that for the next person, and so on…

Increasingly, being in the middle seems to feel oddly isolated as the rising din to “pick a side” on social media gets louder and louder. It seems like the social media doctrine is to pick a side lock, stock and barrel- a political “Happy Meal” that includes a somewhat superficial acceptance of all or nothing from one side or the other. We only get a second to read, to decide, to respond. We may have learned something a long time ago in school, and we do remember part of that, so we quickly compare what we see to what we know and then we hit “post”. God forbid we should actually question, criticize, and inquire. And when we disagree, we need to be ready for the attempts to be shouted down.

I’m satisfied looking at the political and social landscape ala Carte though, and I’d like to know what it is I’m reading and where it came from- to the extent I can.

The outcome of this last election was about as wild a swing from one extreme to the other as you can get. The only way we could be farther from who we had as a former President would be to have elected an albino Margaret Thatcher with male reproductive organs. So things are pretty crazy right now.

The choice we have now is to make use of social media as a shield to paint our existing beliefs on and protect our entrenched views from the swords of new thinking, or as a mirror to reflect our own beliefs in the concern that we may have a big political booger hanging out of our nose.

I’m checking my own nose now. I suggest you do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

He appeared like night smoke. Silent and sudden.

And like smoke he disappeared without a sound.

Someone’s black cat walked through our yard. It sometimes jumps on the windowsills. Nothing unusual, just a pet cat on his rounds when its owner let it outside.

Or so I thought.

After seeing the same black cat every day, whom we began calling “The Mysterious Cat”, I started paying attention to him. I had no idea I would discover an incredible, mysterious wilderness right outside my window. It’s a complex hierarchy of alpha predators, finite territories, deadly stalking and a ruthless food chain. It’s no different than the plains of Africa where majestic lions hunt in prides or the jungles of the Suriname Forest in India where Bengal tigers stalk their prey like solitary snipers. In fact, it may be even more complex because, whether we realize it or not, we are part of the food chain.

Five things helped me understand The Mysterious Cat. I watched a BBC documentary called “The Secret Life of the Cat”. It followed the hidden behavior of indoor/outdoor pet cats and revealed details about their range, territorial activity and habits. I recently saw the award-winning film, “Kedi”, about feral cats living in Istanbul, Turkey and the local populations’ reverent relationship with them since ancient times. I was reading author(s) Erin Hunter’s entertaining fiction book series, The Warriors. Erin Hunter, who is actually a group of six different authors, creates fictional feline characters divided into different categories of cats. Some are pet cats, called “kittypets”, others are solitary outdoor cats called “loners” and “rogues”. They have complex fictional societies and elaborate adventures. I was also casually keeping track of local pet cats’ behavior in the neighborhood. I would see the same cats on someone’s porch, notice their schedules and territorial behavior. And then finally, the fifth thing that got my attention:

One night The Mysterious Cat made an extraordinary visit. It stalked into our run-down outdoor back porch. A very large, solid black cat with a thick coat and sturdy legs. He skirted the crumbling brick planter wall, checked over his shoulder twice, then silently climbed in one stride up to where my girlfriend had planted catnip plants. He munched catnip for a second, and then it got weird…

Our indoor cat, Vice-Admiral Malcom Fredrick Davis III (Vice-Admiral for short), stepped up on the indoor porch windowsill. The Mysterious Cat left the catnip plant and slowly walked over to the outdoor window where the Vice-Admiral was. Glass separated the two cats. I anticipated hissing and raised fur, and then one cat would make a hasty retreat. But I was wrong.

The Vice-Admiral, a domesticated indoor “kittypet”, was intensely interested in the Mysterious Cat. He was not afraid of the Mysterious Cat, not aggressive toward him. It was as though he was fascinated, as a person might be seeing an exotic new species. The Vice-Admiral leaned forward toward the glass. The Mysterious cat climbed onto the windowsill outside. Only a thin windowpane separated the two cats. In a gesture that could only be interpreted as a form of inter-species détente, the Vice-Admiral assumed the exact same posture as the Mysterious Cat, mimicking him, side turned to him, pressing against the inside of the glass as the Mysterious Cat leaned against the outside in mirror image. It’s possible the cats could feel the warmth of each others’ bodies through the glass, the vibration from their nervous purring. It made no sense. I expected territorial behavior, meowing, hissing, arched backs. What I saw was bizarre behavior I had never seen between two domestic cats.

Because I wasn’t watching two domestic cats.

 

The Vice-Admiral maintains surveillance.

I wanted to know who owned the Mysterious Cat, who cared for it, where it lived and what its name is- whether it is a boy or a girl. I posted a photo of the Mysterious Cat from my smartphone on the local neighborhood web forum NextdoorNeighborhood.com. “Does Anyone Know This Awesome Black Cat?” What I learned was stunning.

The Mysterious Cat is not a domestic cat. It is a feral cat.

Feral cats are behaviorally hyper-evolved cats  that appear identical to domestic cats. They live in a vast grey area between wild cats like bobcats, lynxes, panthers and cougars and stray domestic cats. They are very distant from an indoor domestic cat in behavior. They are also different than a stray domestic cat as I learned without realizing it a year earlier.

Feral cats are the alpha predators of suburbia. They are highly adapted and exhibit incredible intelligence, reasoning, and a remarkable ability to learn complex concepts quickly. They stalk, kill and enforce a ruthless command over a clearly defined territory. They sit at the top of a natural suburban food chain few people even know exists. Most of what they eat is prey they kill in their nightly hunting trips. These suburban wildcats help reduce rodent populations and control pests. They are, in a very real sense, the panthers on our porches. Feral cats seldom “convert” from being feral to becoming domestic, although this does happen occasionally. Particularly in the ruins of outer Detroit where vast areas of abandoned houses and overgrown lawns turned mini-forests are the perfect environment for a growing population of feral cats, these remarkable semi-wild cats are on the rise.

One night, after dark, I spotted the Mysterious Cat outside. The wind was east to west and the cat was headed east. My sound and scent would be masked. I followed him to wherever he was going. At first he appeared remarkably casual, walking in shadow near the center of the sidewalk at a businesslike pace. I did not know it, but I was being drawn into an ambush. At each corner he would stop and listen, look, before crossing the street. How did a cat learn to use sidewalks and crosswalks, and obey stop signs? I followed carefully, moving from concealed position to concealed position nearly a block behind him. Remarkably he did something I had learned as a member of an elite special operations unit in the military. He changed direction, circled back and checked behind him to be sure he was not being followed. And he saw me. This cat had just used tactics taught in the most sophisticated combat schools in the military. And he just used them to perform counter-surveillance on me. If Osama bin Laden had behaved like this cat, we’d still be looking for him. I was stunned. This was no one’s pet. This was a sophisticated predator.

A woman on the NextDoorNeighborhood.com forum replied to my inquiry about the Mysterious Cat. Cyndi Parrely lives on the corner two city blocks east of our house. Her garage door is always slightly open, about a foot. There is a stone statue of a cat in her garden. Visible just under her door is a small cat enclosure. The lair of the Mysterious Cat.

“I do not know if it’s a boy or girl. Can’t really get close enough. I began feeding her/him about a year ago. Very gentle but keeps her distance. Never makes a sound.”

Cyndi has defaulted to referring to the Mysterious Cat as “her”. No one knows its true gender or age. Or where it came from. But Cyndi is a kind and generous person who has made a home in her garage for the Mysterious Cat. She has entered the behavioral and food chain of the feral cat, and performs a vital function to its survival.

The Mysterious Cat would only accept food and some limited outdoor shelter from her. No petting sessions, little physical contact. “I touch her when she comes up to eat and she is fine with that. Doesn’t run away.”

Suddenly a number of mysterious puzzle pieces about local cat behavior revealed themselves. Two cats who live at the south end of the block near the entrance to the park never leave their yard. The Mysterious Cat does not permit it. He limits their territory to their own yard, chasing them back to their house if they venture outside their clearly defined territory. He allows them their yard, but no more. And his policing of the boundaries is vigilant and rough.

Young Chester, our adopted stray who lived outside much of the time before we adopted him, had three deep puncture wounds on his left ear when we got him a year or so ago. When Chester first appeared in the neighborhood right before we adopted him the Mysterious Cat had savagely enforced his territorial rule on young Chester. Even though he was no more than a kitten, Chester was a threat, a competitor for food in the Mysterious Cat’s domain. There was no room for Chester. The Mysterious Cat tried to kill him. Luckily, young Chester escaped with only minor wounds and we adopted him permanently as an indoor cat. Now he is safe.

For months Chester would sit in the window and meow a longing, urgent meow in the early morning, the time when the Mysterious Cat was most frequently seen returning to his lair. The week after the Vice-Admiral held his meeting on the back porch with the Mysterious Cat, Chester stopped meowing. He has not done it since. It’s been a week. It is as though some silent communication was passed on that Chester is off the “kill” list; the Vice-Admiral has brokered a peace treaty. Call me a crazy cat person, but this behavior is real.

Cyndi told me, “She [or he] stares at my cat through the glass door. They are both outside together at times and get along. No fights.” Cyndi told me about the Mysterious Cat’s behavior in her yard. “I try and coax her but to no avail.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of this story is the role we humans play in the Mysterious Cat’s life. Something in us, some desire to spread kindness and safety, is leveraged by the Mysterious Cat. It is arguable who ultimately commands the neighborhood, the humans who live in the houses here, or the Mysterious Cat that can bend us to its will without making a sound.