Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 2

 

I left off last week at the intersection of SLOW DOWN and PLAN AHEAD. I did mention that “slow down” was reasonable since my main goal was to finish the event. As it turned out, a cyclist crashed while I was on the bike course, and we were held up in a big cluster while the medevac helicopter came to get him. Some of the folks near me were complaining about the hold-up and their race time, and all I could think was “If you are out here with me, you are in no danger of winning this thing.” (the cyclist was ok, and the first question he asked when he woke up in the hospital was “Where’s my bike?”) All that said, even when I am trying to go fast I find it helps me to slow down. A frenetic fast gets me nowhere. And slowing down, if only slowing my mind down, helps give me time to – you got it:

PLAN AHEAD

From a horsemanship standpoint, this also ties to a thing I have heard called the “scale of aids” – basically, a 1 is no pressure at all, and a 10 is more pressure than you would really ever want to use on your horse. The aids we give the horse fall somewhere on this scale, and you have to be at least one mental step ahead where you are physically in order to have time to apply the right aid at the right level. Or perhaps it would be better put to say you have to be aware enough of your surroundings to know not only what is happening now, but what is coming up next. Let me say first of all that I am not in any way comparing a horse to a bicycle here, but I did have a big revelation about the whole idea of a scale of 1-10 while learning to shift.  Bikes, or at least the road bike I was riding, have front and rear chain rings for changing gears (and a whole lot more gears than they used to have, might I add).  The 3 front rings change the gearing a lot, and the 10 rear ones change it less.

Cycling for 20 or 30 miles at a time in this hilly county where I live gave me lots of time to think and also lots of opportunity to shift.  At first this was a pretty klunky process (the shifting, but sometimes the thinking too), and I have to admit I often shifted just because I guessed it might be time to, or I was bored, or I wanted to see what would happen if I did.  One of these times I managed to completely lock up my derailleur by shifting too much at the wrong time in the middle of an uphill in traffic and had to quickly apply my “unclip both feet” lesson.  I’ve done the equivalent of this on horseback, and gotten a pretty nice view from above of my horse’s back before I hit the ground. Over time I have learned that if I pay attention to the terrain, and to how I feel, I can generally anticipate what kind of shift I will need to make and when I will need to make it. Or, with my horses, the kind of aid I need and when I need it – or perhaps more important, when I don’t need to do anything. This has gone hand in hand with learning more about…

CADENCE

In triathlon training I first heard about cadence while biking, but it turns out to apply to everything.  Keeping a steady cadence on a bike greatly helps decrease perceived exertion and generally makes the bike ride easier and more fun (assuming you keep a cadence your muscles and lungs can actually do – more on this later).  And in order to keep a steady cadence, you have to make the right size adjustment at the right time so that you don’t have big lurches downward in speed (which happens when you shift to a much harder gear than you meant to) and so you don’t wind up pedaling so fast that you feel like your legs might fly off (which happens when you shift to a much easier gear than you meant to).  Now sometimes a big change is the correct thing to keep your cadence steady, but you have to know what’s coming (plan ahead…) to know when that’s true.  Cadence also comes in when swimming (strokes per length in a pool eventually translates to a rhythm in open water) and when running (which is the one place where I seem to have a natural cadence that works).  And of course in riding.  The huge and inadvertent cadence changes while biking really clarified some things for me about the thing I always want to work on in my riding – smoothing out my transitions.  Which of course turns out to have everything to do with planning ahead and with making the appropriate scale request for the change. Knowing what you want and thinking about how to achieve it of course leads me to:

SET GOALS

This could also be called Plan Ahead part 3, but it’s more specific.  I’ve heard horsemen I respect say many times that rather than just getting on your horse and seeing what happens, you want to have a goal.  I’ve gotten so hung up on trying not to pressure my horses – or myself (“I just want to finish the course” applies to a lot of things for me) – that I often don’t want to set goals more than about an hour ahead of right now.  But I found that it helped me immeasurably to have one specific long term goal (complete an Olympic distance triathlon on May 18) and smaller but also fairly specific goals leading up to it.  These goals varied a lot.  “Do a workout in each of the 3 disciplines twice a week” was a fairly general goal.  “Increase my run cadence from 170 to 180” was more specific.  “Ride a practice ride on the bike course without braking on the downhills” was another type of goal. So some of them were technique things and some were more about getting accustomed to how something felt. “Figure out how to swim 1500 yards in the wetsuit without panicking” was actually my goal for one workout.  It took a lot of SLOW DOWN to reach that goal that day!  The other aspect of goal setting I learned while training for my first triathlon is to set goals in the positive – “finish the swim smiling” vs “don’t drown in the lake.”  Or, with my horses, “ride with softness and confidence” vs “don’t get bucked off.”

BLACK BELT MOVES

One of my best horsemanship teachers is an advanced martial artist and I’ve heard him talk about a yellow belt trying to (or wanting to) do black belt moves.  I’m not a martial artist of any kind but I thought I understood what he meant.  Something I came to a very different understanding of during triathlon training is that I am where I am, and while I can work towards learning more, or doing something better, it is also true that I am where I need to be.  I may hear someone else talk about something they did or felt and it may sound really cool to me – or maybe it just sounds really odd to me because I don’t even understand it – but the fact is, when I’m ready to do or feel that thing then I will be ready to do or feel that thing.  That probably doesn’t sound at all like what I mean. This brings me back to what I said about a cadence I can actually do. If I try to match some ideal cadence I’ve been told to do, and I physically can’t do it, I need to do something else.

Maybe it’s really about acceptance.  I may see a high level swimmer who can cross a pool in 11 strokes, and it takes me 24. As I improve my technique and my feel, I can get that down from 24 to 20.  And maybe eventually I can get it down to 11, or maybe I can’t.  Maybe I have to be 6 feet tall to do that, I don’t know.  But if I try to do it in 11 strokes, I will not only exhaust myself within minutes; I will disappoint myself with every attempt and I will never be able to see that I have improved from 24 to 22 strokes because all I will see is that it is not 11.  Which I suppose leads to the next thing:

STAY PRESENT

Being in the lake during the triathlon I was about as present as I have ever been.  I knew that I had to stay focused on each stroke and to keep telling myself to slow down because I had had so much trouble in my first swim practices in the wetsuit with focusing on the other swimmers and how fast I was (not) compared to them – this was where I would start fretting about being the last athlete on the course and all kinds of other things that had nothing to do with now.  What I found was that almost from the beginning as I focused on my stroke and how I felt in the water, what I felt was… GREAT.  I was having so much fun!  I felt like when I was a kid swimming in a lake, just playing in the water and loving every minute of it.  No worries about who else was doing what or what was coming next or anything.  Staying present helped get me to my next  point, which is:

HAVE FUN WHILE WORKING HARD

A week to the day after that first triathlon, I went to the first horse show I had been to in about 9 years.  It was a little local schooling show with maybe 25 riders, on an absolutely beautiful spring day on a gorgeous farm.  And NO ONE, not one single rider (or one single horse), looked like they were enjoying one single thing they were doing.  A week before, I had been with 1800 other people, some of whom are the top international competitors in their sport, and some who were total novices like me, and I did not encounter one person who didn’t smile or have something nice and/or helpful to say to someone else.  Now, I’m sure (I hope) I missed someone who was having a blast a the dressage show, and someone probably was miserable at the triathlon, but in either case it was hard to find.

It had already started to dawn on me that I too had gotten very far away from having fun with my riding, but this brought it home to me even more.  Or more accurately, it brought home to me that I had put up a big divide between having fun and working hard.  It became an either/or thing for me – sometimes I enjoy my horses, and sometimes I work my horses. But not both at the same time. It’s fair to say this can be a struggle for me in other areas. I don’t always remember that it’s not either/or, but when I catch myself I often remind myself of the smiling triathletes, or of one more little lesson I learned:

SIMPLE ANSWERS

When we showed up at the course to set up our “transition area” where we would get on our bikes after the swim, and get into our running shoes after the bike course, several of us first-timers were in a bit of a panic about how to fit our belongings in a very narrow area of a bike rack without impinging on people next to us. An experienced competitor overheard us fretting and he came over to say: “Your SHIT goes under your BIKE. You put your SHIT under your BIKE.” And there you have it. I’m not sure that last one has anything to do with horsemanship, but since it is one of my bigger areas of overthinking, I’m sure it does. Do the simplest thing and stop fretting. Not a bad lesson for life in general.

Team Crystal Tower Bear Bells

Horsemanship through Triathlon, part 1

Lil

Right around when I turned 40 I decided it would be a good idea to compete in a triathlon. Well, that’s not entirely how it went. A friend of our had been doing distance events – century bike rides, triathlons of various lengths – as fundraisers for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Through a combination of I no longer remember what – but I know it included his enthusiasm for the cause and for the events, some persuasive rhetoric about the bonds formed with the people he trained with, a friend of his whom we had met who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and, I can only assume, quite a bit of wine – Rose and I decided to sign up.

At the time I was still in the pre-facebook days of connecting with people I had shared interests with but didn’t actually know in person via Yahoo groups. There was a horsemanship group I had joined up with about five years earlier. That group, all of its different iterations, the people I met through it, and the people I met through those people – well, that’s a blog post or three all by itself. The general exploration we were all doing in our horsemanship was (and is) all about how horsemanship isn’t just a thing that applies to our riding, or our time with horses. It’s pretty well impossible to be any kind of a horseman and not take the principles and behaviors that serve you (and your horses) there into the rest of your life.

Given that, I should not have been surprised by how much of what I was working on in my horsemanship turned out to be applicable to triathlon, but I was.  And I was also surprised to find that some things that I thought I knew a little something about from horsemanship I gained a deeper understanding of from swimming, or biking, or running, or all three. I don’t ride horses much any more, and I haven’t done a triathlon for nine years, but I find myself reminiscing about both things right now when it’s about 187 degrees outside and I’m hiding in the house.

When I started triathlon training, the thing I noticed right away was how much I learned about learning.  It had been a while since I tried something new, and I am a person who likes to know what I’m doing before I sign up to learn about it. I was familiar with the component parts of a triathlon in a general way. I knew how to run and swim and bike – a little.  The longest race I’d ever run was a 5K.  I could swim enough to enjoy it and I knew more or less how to do three of the 4 main strokes (emphatically NOT the butterfly), but I was never a swim team kid and really never took lessons.  I had been on a bike maybe twice in the previous 20 years, and prior to that wasn’t much of a biker anyway.  The task at hand was a 1.5K (.93 mile) swim, 40K (24.8 mile) bike ride and 10K (6.2 mile) run, so I had some learning to do.

There were several categories of learning, or maybe better to say several topics I learned about, as I figured how how to get through those 30+ miles. I think I’ll group this by topic.

FEAR

One of the things that turned out to be a big factor in learning was fear. I rode horses a lot as a kid and would do absolutely anything absolutely anywhere, but then I got older and found that I don’t bounce the way I used to when I hit the ground.  I did not (and still do not) like to admit fear around horse-related activity.  When I started triathlon training I was still teaching the occasional riding lesson. When I had a student who spent the whole lesson looking like they want to cry or throw up but who told me they felt great, I wondered who they thought they were fooling – so of course I had to ask the same of myself.

Admitting I was terrified on a bicycle came a lot easier to me than admitting when I was scared around a horse. When it came to riding my bike down hill – well, ok, I have to admit – when it came to riding my bike at all, I was SCARED. The idea of swimming almost a mile when usually I maxed out at a quarter mile and then only when I stopped every 4 laps or so and rest was just as scary.  And I saw no way around it, so I just kept saying to anyone who would listen, “THIS IS REALLY SCARY”.  But I was determined to do this thing, so I had to figure out how to get past the fear.

Several lessons came out of just (just!) learning to deal with the fear. First, I would rather say the thing that is funny than the thing that shows vulnerability, but during that time it became increasingly important to me to spend more time practicing having my insides and outsides match, which meant admitting what I actually felt – out loud, to other people. Second, as long as I deny something, I keep myself from learning how to deal with it or move past it. Third, fear can actually be a good impetus for learning how to do something better and more safely. And finally, my patience with people – and horses – who are afraid increased exponentially as my desire for them to just get over it (you know, like I would…) decreased and my understanding of how fear impacts both mind and body increased.

BREATHING

And then there was the breathing. Breathing (without periods of holding my breath), breathing deeply and regularly, counting how many strides my horse took during my inhale and my exhale – I’d been working on this in my riding for several years. I had, of course, been thinking that my breathing had improved.  And it probably had.  Turns out breathing is even more important when you swim, and any weaknesses you have in this area are magnified quite a lot under water.

For the previous forty years – or however many since I first learned to swim – I had only breathed to the right when doing crawl.  Couldn’t (wouldn’t) even contemplate turning my head to the left.  Every once in a while I’d try, get a mouth (or lung) full of water and give up. When you are swimming in open water you never know which side the wind might be coming from or which direction you might have to go, so you best learn to breathe on both sides or you may find yourself doing a mile of dog paddle (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to avoid swallowing your body weight in funky river or ocean or lake water.

Learning to breathe on my left brought up a whole lot of other things that were one-sided about me.  My neck was stiffer on the left, and my left shoulder was stiffer than my right. My back muscles were uneven from years of doing things (mucking stalls included) only – or mostly – one sided.  The more I practiced breathing on both sides in the water, the more I practiced evening out my body, and the better balanced I found I became on a horse, or even just on the ground.  Which brings me to another benefit of the breathing lesson, which is that in order to learn to do it correctly while swimming I had to…

SLOW DOWN

From the beginning I was realistic enough to know that my number one goal was to complete the triathlon (goal 1.1 was not to be the very last person on the course).  Going too fast early on and burning myself out or hurting myself was a pretty sure way not to reach that goal.  And it also turned out that when learning to do something new (or an old thing a new way) it’s a lot easier – and more productive – to break it down and slow it down.

I learned this on the day I finally got brave enough to get on my bike in what they call “clipless pedals” – which means the kind you clip yourself into. I got on my bike in my driveway, clipped in, and started to pedal gently around the circle by the garage.  When I wanted to stop for a second I figured it would be quicker to just unclip one foot and put that foot on the ground with my other foot still on the pedal.  Excellent plan – except it required a level of coordination I did not yet have on the bike.  So in my attempt to do the fast and easy (ha!) thing, I unclipped my left pedal  to put my left foot down – and promptly fell to the right with my right foot still clipped in and the bike on top of me.

Two immediate changes I made in my life:  any time I think I might need to stop on my bike I immediately unclip both feet.  And any time I think “I might need to close that gate before I…” I go and close the gate.  Don’t ask me why I connected those two things in that moment on the asphalt under my bike, but I did.  This is where SLOW DOWN merges with PLAN AHEAD, which is where I will pick up next time.

Triathlon

 

 

Dog Days

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My pandemic “don’t feel like it” has been compounded exponentially by weather-related “don’t feel like it.” It is HOT. And dry. I know not that many months ago I was cursing the clouds and the rain, but I would give a lot for a rainy day or three right about now. This morning there were just enough clouds while the sun was rising that I was able to get the horses tended to without also sizzling in the sun, but now the sun is out and making up for lost time.

The list of things I don’t feel like doing is long. I don’t feel like cooking, or working, or writing. I don’t feel like weeding, or picking vegetables. I don’t feel like vacuuming or dusting, though to be fair that was true before the heat and the pandemic. Also true of working out, which it probably goes without saying that I don’t feel like. It’s just as well in some ways that it is dry, because I don’t feel like mowing or weed-eating and if it were wet and this hot I might be living in a jungle by now.

I don’t feel like walking the dogs or even touching the horses. Luckily, the dogs don’t feel like walking either, nor do the horses want to be touched. I offered the horses a nice cool hosing, but all they want is cold water in their trough, the shade of their shed, and to be left alone. I know how they feel.

The dogs and I have been on our own in the house for nearly a month now. We have a routine, because we all like routines, but lately more and more of our routine involves lying on the sofa, or the floor. I think they have the right idea with the cool basement floor, or the kitchen tile by the air conditioning vents. I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s only a matter of time till I find myself splayed out on the concrete with the rest of my pack.

When the pandemic stay-at-home orders began, my social media feeds were full of suggestions for what to do with all our free time. I spent the first month being puzzled by this, and much of the time since then being annoyed by it. I’ve been working from home for sixteen years. I am not a social person. I have the same number of animals I had before the pandemic. Basically, nothing has changed in my day to day routine. I have no more or less free time than I had before. I do not have the time or the inclination to take up new hobbies, start a new workout routine, meditate, or begin any other form of self improvement. I almost want to ask who HAS been doing any of these things (outside of talking about it on social media), but really that’s just one more thing I don’t want to spend time paying attention to.

Now, with Rose away, I have one more layer of what-I-could-be-doing-but-I’m-not. If you have been in a house with someone else, or more than one someone else, since the pandemic began, do you think there are things you would do if it was just you in the house? If you had all the alone time you haven’t had for the last several months? I’m not sure where I thought more time might appear in my day, but once again it did not. I do all the same things I was doing before, only now I do all of them by myself. I probably talk to the dogs even more than I did before.

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Most of the time, the dogs tell me to chill out. Occasionally, they tell me to take them outside, but they usually remember why that was a bad idea as soon as they get there. If we are out early enough, Quinn can sometimes talk Boo into a game of zoomies, but not very often. Scout is emphatically not interested, and who can blame him? He and I are in no mood to run as fast as we can. Or at all.

Dogs have no need for self-improvement projects. They think they are just fine as they are, and I have to say I agree. One of the very nicest things about dogs is that they think we are just fine as we are too. We are at our best when we calm down enough from all the human things to just sit on the sofa, with maybe some popcorn we are willing to share. That is enough.

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Some Pig

Piglet Nursing

Twelve years ago I decided it was time to go back to school and finish the college degree I had not gotten nearly twenty years before that. During my first time at college I completed three and a half years of what would have been at least a six year program due to my inability to decide on a major. I started out as an animal science major. I had always assumed I would become a vet, probably a zoo vet. I was not daunted by the courses required for pre-vet studies; I was simply distracted by the multitude of options.

By midway through my first year I had decided to switch to political science. When I signed up for classes the fall of my sophomore year, I declared myself a Russian major. This may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that a) I missed all the deadlines and had to go to in-person registration where only the dregs of classes are left, and b) the only food to eat in the house for breakfast was the remains of a pan of brownies I had made the night before. Yes, those kind of brownies.

I had a brief flirtation with environmental science. I would have switched to microbiology if the school had had such a major at the time. I eventually settled on a double major in biology and philosophy. On second thought, maybe it’s not so surprising I did not stick around to get a degree.

Fast forward eighteen years and I was back to thinking vet school was a good idea. I enrolled once again, though at a different school, as an animal science major, this time surrounded by kids who were the same age as my youngest child. My classes were a blend of animal science classes like livestock management, pre-vet classes like physiology, classes I had to take again because the science had changed in twenty years like biology 101, classes I had managed to avoid the first time like organic chemistry, and classes I had to take for distribution requirements like history. For my first three semesters I would despondently review my class choices, this time without benefit of pot brownies, wondering how when I was so sure I wanted to be back in school and studying animal science there were so many classes I had to take that I didn’t want to take.

There were several different concentrations within the animal science major, not just pre-vet, and when I looked at them more closely I realized that the more general animal management track was full of classes that actually interested me. Around the same time I heard about a coveted internship at a large animal research lab that seemed like a good way to get some experience in a field I might be able to work in after graduation. The prospect of a starter job – and starter salary – when I was in my forties and had a mortgage, kids in college, and all the other financial ballast that accumulates when you no longer have a starter life was not something I could see a way to make work financially. Lab science tends to pay better than most animal sciences, even at the lowest level. My lab science professor, who was also the veterinarian for the school’s labs, was very up front about saying that it pays more because it’s hard and no one who gets into animal science because they love animals really wants to do it. What she meant by this wouldn’t become obvious to me until later.

At the time, I got no response from the lab to my inquiries about their internship. My classmates had the same issue, and we heard rumors that they were no longer taking students from our program. My first opportunity to apply my learning hands-on was a stint at the state fair birthing center, which was run by my livestock management professor who was and is one of my favorite people. The birthing center houses cows, pigs, and chicken eggs, and over the eleven days of the fair gives fair goers an opportunity to witness the births of calves, piglets, and chicks, and also an opportunity to pat the chicks and piglets. Swine flu outbreaks at state fairs have since ruled out piglet patting, but for the two seasons I was there we spent our days taking turns narrating the births, and holding piglets and chicks for people to pat and ask questions.

I don’t think I had ever met a pig in person before the fair, and I was hooked from the first day. We had some particularly special sows that year. The state fair pigs come from 4H projects. These kids love their pigs, but they are ruthlessly practical. All of them raise their animals for meat. They cuddle them and love them and care for them, and then they send them to market. One of them kept the meat from his favorite pig every year, and sold the others. Another kept some sausage from each of her pigs, labeled with their names, so she could do a taste comparison.

I can take or leave cows, and I can mostly leave chickens, but pigs got under my skin immediately and permanently. Even when I got attacked by Pigzilla the first year – I was checking her for milk to see when she might give birth, and she woke up from her nap by leaping onto her feet and charging me with mouth open, roaring. I have zero vertical leap but I jumped the five foot fence around her pen in one bound, landing on a group of surprised onlookers. 4H sows (Pigzilla aside) are by and large sweet and used to being handled. Piglets are adorable, but they are much easier to manage – and much less likely to permanently damage your hearing – if you can hold them while they are sleeping. My fellow birthing center workers would sometimes ask me if I could lull a piglet to sleep so they could hold one that wasn’t wiggling and shrieking. They called me the pig whisperer.

Some time after my first time at the fair the research lab of the coveted internship was hiring a lab tech, and a classmate who had graduated before me and who had, unbeknownst to me, started working there, reached out to let me know. The opportunity to work with pigs (and goats and sheep) all day AND make money doing it? A no brainer for me. Turns out I should have used a brain or two to think that through a little more.

By my second day in the lab, I knew I had made a bad choice. I was in the necropsy room – basically a closet with a concrete floor with a drain in it – using a kitchen knife – and not a very sharp one, at that – to cut the hind legs off of the thirty-odd goats that had reached the end of their study that day. There are plenty of euphemisms about death in the world – pass away, cross over, euthanize, put down, just to name a few. Lab science adds a whole new level: end of study, harvest, collection. When we lab techs were talking to the scientists, we used their terms, but when we talked among ourselves we were more direct. “End of study” days we called “death days.” As we were finishing up lunch, one of us would say “Ok, time to go kill those sheep.” My third day there, I worked with a pig for the first time. About ten seconds after it was dead I was up to my elbows in its chest cavity, while one of the more experienced techs talked me through how to remove its heart and lungs by feel.

The lab had a mixed bag of studies, almost all surgical. Some were what are called “acute” procedures, meaning the animal is dead by the time the surgery is over. Some were long term, so the animals had weeks or months after their surgery before harvest day arrived. As techs, in addition to assisting with surgeries, we fed the animals and cleaned their stalls. We prepped them for surgery, we monitored them after surgery, we administered their pain meds. And then we killed them.

Monitoring any animal in post op is intense. Pigs in particular take a long time to come out of anesthesia, and sometimes we would sit with them for hours, checking their vital signs every ten minutes. Literally sit with them, in their pens, often with some portion of the pig in our laps. The first two pigs from one study I was assigned to were in so much pain following jaw surgery that they wouldn’t eat. The only thing I could tempt them with was the syrup from a case of fruit cups long past their expiration date that we found sitting on a shelf in among the gauze and bandages. After the first day they would also eat the fruit, but only if I fed it to them by hand. I was eventually able to wean them on to eating soaked feed topped with fruit cup, and then just the soaked feed. Six months later they had grown from roughly 75 pounds at the time of surgery to 300 pounds. We were in surgery with another pig from the same study when the scientist stopped by to talk to the surgeon about how best to see what they needed to see at end of study. They had done earlier CT scans to look at the results of the surgery in the pigs’ jaws but by now the pigs were too big to fit in the scanner. I forget if it was the surgeon or the scientist who came up with the solution to cut the pigs’ heads off and just take the heads for scanning.

The most surprising part of this story is that I stayed there for a year. It took me that long to realize that I had gotten so far away from who I am that I was about to lose myself entirely. I was so focused on trying to do it well, on what I could learn, on the possible opportunities it could lead to. I was buried under the weight of my own expectations about what it meant to change careers, fear of explaining to anyone else why I spent all this time and money going back to school only to not be able to hack it in my new field, and a lifelong belief that I needed to just suck it up and tough it out, whatever the obstacle. I’d like to be able to sum up the whole experience with a tidy life lesson, but life lessons for me are rarely tidy. Sometimes I have to make massive mistakes, mistakes so big they can be seen from space, for me to get a message that I need to get. Maybe the fact that the pigs are on my mind today means there’s another message I need. Or maybe it just means I’ve finally forgiven myself enough to write about it.

Heart Piglets

Everyday Magic

Magic hosta

Many years ago, the bagpiper we hired for Rose’s father’s memorial service looked around our property and said “This is the kind of place where if you are sitting down, you should be doing something.” I’m flying solo here for a few weeks and I am reminded of that every day, as I try to keep up with all the things that two of us usually do.

It’s hard for me to see this property on a macro level sometimes. If I look at once at all the things that need to be done, I just want to go lie down in the basement with the dogs. Especially when it’s over 90 degrees every day. The thing about having horses is that there’s no option about whether to go outside and do the chores, regardless of the level of heat or cold. Once I get out there and start doing things, I don’t have time to think about whether or not I feel like doing the things, I just do them, whether it’s weeding or mowing in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, or feeding, moving hay, or mucking in all weather. With the exception of weed-eating, which I can’t pause while doing or I know I just won’t start up again, while I’m doing chores I keep one eye out for the small bits of magic that remind me why I love this place so much.

Magic Crystals

I take a lot of photos of the things that catch my attention while I’m doing chores. I usually have my cell phone with me because it fits in my pocket. As often as I wish I had my binoculars or my actual camera with me, I don’t like trying to wrangle horse feed buckets with things clanking around my neck, and I am almost guaranteed to get hay or water in some key part that should not have hay or water in it. I used to buy my cell phones based on call quality, but now I buy them based on camera quality and as a bonus, it makes phone calls. I assume. Making phone calls is by far the least used activity on my cell phone.Magic Spiderweb

Every so often, like yesterday, I look around at the trees. When we moved here twenty years ago, the only trees were evergreens that bordered the property on three sides. There was no landscaping; there was just grass growing right up to the edge of the house, and one azalea bush near the front door. The first things we had done when we moved in were to have fence put in for the horses, and to have the barn built. The first thing we did ourselves was to plant trees. The ground is quite rocky here, and digging holes for trees is no easy task, but it’s extremely satisfying. I am routinely amazed that we planted all of these trees, some of which tower over the house or the barn, and some of which my hands no longer meet around when I hug them (because of course I hug my trees).

The trees are almost all different – there are very few varieties we planted multiples of – and in addition to looking different, they seem to attract different birds. The mockingbirds like to sing from the top of the dawn redwood, and they nest in the Alberta spruce. There are hummingbirds in the Crimson King maple, grey catbirds in the yews, brown thrashers in the Autumn Blaze maple, and bluebirds in the willow. The hawks and crows battle it out in the tall pines. The sycamores hold house finches and seemingly endless varieties of sparrows. This year, for reasons I do not understand but I’m not about to question, the green herons have decided to nest in the weeping cherry tree right outside our bedroom window.

Magic Tree

I grew up in the city, and it’s taken me a lot of years to progress past thinking every red bird is a cardinal, every brown bird is a sparrow, and every yellow bird is a goldfinch. I don’t reliably wear my glasses and I think my eyesight is better than it is, so my experience of birds is often a flash of color or movement. If they sit still and I can get a good look, I can now identify many of them. Sometimes they kindly stay put long enough for me to go get the binoculars from the house, and identify a yellow warbler, a scarlet tanager, or last month my first ever pair of cedar waxwings. The things that don’t move also catch my eye, and give me time to get them in focus: frost on the fence boards, spiderwebs shimmering with dew, raindrops on the hosta leaves, and a far more varied and beautiful range of fungus on the horse manure than you might expect.

If I am sitting still, it is true that I should be doing something. Often that something is paying attention. The weeds on the fence lines can wait for another day, but the spiderwebs and the dewdrops and the horse manure fairy garden are transient. The real shame would come if I didn’t take the time to notice them.

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Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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Invasive Species

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Hitching rides on boat hulls,
hidden in packaging,
given as gifts,
brought in for bait.
Revered as exotic beauties –
their value shifting
when they pushed out the natives:
reproducing more quickly,
choking out the habitat,
hogging the food,
depleting the resources.

If the native species
convened a committee,
Which way would they vote?
Who would they eliminate?
The pond dwellers and their algal blooms,
The nest destroyers, the egg leavers,
The tree-chokers, the wetland-fillers?

Or might they say, no,
Most of you can stay.
We will learn to live together,
Or we won’t, no matter.
But on this we can agree:
Someone has to go.
Let’s send back the ones
Who built the boats.

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Cowbird

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“Cowbirds,” people scoff.
Parasites. Intruders.
Eggs laid in others’ nests.
Overlarge mouths
Awkward bodies
Crowding out
Bright bluebirds
Sweet singing warblers.

But what
of the cowbird babes,
Born in the wrong nest,
Raised by unfamiliar wings?
When do they know
This is not
Where they belong?

How do they find
Each other?
When do they learn
Their own songs?

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Graduation Day

Sunset Cody

A good dog died today.
There’s a lot to say
About 15 human years of dog life.
About Uncle Cody, and all the ways
He taught lessons to the other dogs
At Uncle School (not an easy school).

Uncle School had lessons in manners
Lessons in personal space
Lessons in respecting your elders.
Uncle School was hard on Uncle, too
When the students got big enough
To realize they maybe didn’t have to
Take his lessons any longer.

Uncle School is only part of the story.
There is also a simple love story:
Once upon a time, there was a girl,
And this girl met a dog, and she loved him.
She did not, in the immortal words of Robin Williams,
Know shit about fuck
Where dogs were concerned.
This dog, he put up with a lot
Of things she did not know.

This girl, she has a lot of flaws.
Here’s the thing about this girl, though:
She really knows how to love.
Here’s the thing about this dog
(Here’s the thing about dogs):
They really know how to feel love.
Even when you screw up
Pretty much all the details.
And they really know
How to love you back.

Today’s lesson at Uncle School
Was about how to love and let go.
It was about trusting yourself.
It was about listening to someone else
When they can’t tell you anything in words.
It was about how some lessons are simple.
It was about how love is the best teacher
Except for a good dog.
Uncle School, over and out.

Carpe Poopem

Face Close-up

My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

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